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When asked in 11th grade, one in six high school juniors has plans after high school that don’t include college. Smaller percentages of Minnesota’s high school juniors expect to do things like enlist in the military, obtain a license or certificate, or work after high school.

Top anticipated pathways after high school among Minnesota’s 11th graders (not including college), 2019

1 Work at a job 6%
2 Join the Military 4%
3 Get a license or certificate in a career field 2%
4 Attend an apprenticeship program 1%
5 Get a GED 1%
6 Other 4%

Source: Minnesota Student Survey,


Employment (including licensure, certification, and apprenticeship)

In their junior year, about 6% of students expect to work at a job after high school, in addition to 3% who expect to get a license or certificate in a career field and 1% who expect to attend an apprenticeship program. (These two latter percentages are included because licensure, certificate, and apprenticeship programs often have a required employment component.)

But take a look at this jump. Within one year after graduation, 26% of Minnesota’s high school students are working (and not attending school).1   That’s a pretty remarkable increase in the share of graduates working after high school, versus the share who thought they would be working.

We don’t have great data on the reasons behind this shift, but there’s room to speculate. We know that – at least until the pandemic – the share of youth (age 16-19) working in Minnesota had been on a steady rise since the Great Recession. It is unclear whether these jobs are “good” jobs with livable wages, benefits, and opportunities for advancement. But the increase in employment among our youngest workers suggests that employment opportunities are available.

We also know that the cost of higher education can be substantial. Advertised annual tuition costs range from $6,300 to more than $40,000 across Minnesota’s institutions. And while inflation-adjusted tuition at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and at the University of Minnesota have remained relatively steady over the last five or more years, tuition at Minnesota’s private four-year institutions continues to climb.

Taken together, these trends may point to the fact that a portion of high school graduates make an educated assessment about their job opportunities (perhaps relative to the cost of higher education), and they land in favor of more immediate job opportunities. For students that are coming to the same conclusion, it may be helpful to take a look at this list of 30 in-demand jobs in Minnesota that don’t require a college degree from CareerForce. The median wage for 26 of these jobs falls above $16.21, an hourly wage that should meet a basic-needs budget for a single person in Minnesota.


A small percentage of high school juniors anticipate pathways other than college or employment, but about 4% expect to join the military. Unfortunately, secondary data on this pathway is relatively sparse. What we do know based on the 2020 Demographics Profile by Military OneSource:

  • In 2020, there were 532 active duty military members in Minnesota, one of the smallest active duty forces of any state in the nation (47th among the states and the District of Columbia).
  • In 2020, there were 18,742 selected reserve members in Minnesota, the 14th largest reserve force among the states and the District of Columbia. More than half of these reserve members were in the Army National Guard.
  • Across the US, nearly half of active duty members and nearly one-third of selected reserve members are 25 years of age or younger (45%).
  • Of the more than 1 million active duty members (non-officer) nationwide in the military, about 80% have a high school diploma, GED, or some college as their highest level of educational attainment. This has declined from 86% in 2010.
  • Of the more than 800,000 selected reserve members nationwide, about 56% have a high school diploma, GED, or some college as their highest level of educational attainment.

Multiple pathways to success

The vast majority of high school juniors expect to attend college after graduation, but their expectations don’t always align with what actually happens…or what could be the best opportunities for them.

This may have to do with the conversations adults are having with young people. Conversations about plans after high school frequently focus on college or formal education. Among 11th graders, 77% say an adult in their school has helped them think about education options after high school, like college or another training program. But less than half – 46% – say an adult in their school has helped them find career-focused field experiences like job shadowing, work-based learning, service learning, career camps, or apprenticeships. This suggests that there is opportunity to broaden conversations around pathways after high school.

So, in considering the full range of options, think about this list of resources when talking to the young people in your life.

  • College: The Minnesota Office of Higher Education has information and a range of resources available to people (not just young people!) thinking about higher education. Their website can help you understand the college experience and enrollment based on where you’re at, whether you are graduating from high school and going straight to higher education, returning to higher education after some time away, enrolling for the first time as an adult, or looking to leverage military benefits for higher education.
  • Employment: The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development can help you begin a job search and look for job leads, polish your resume, and take advantage of specific services for veterans and job seekers with disabilities. They also provide tools to better understand jobs that are in demand and high growth, with data about wages, skills, and training requirements.
  • Apprenticeship: Apprenticeship Minnesota at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry promotes, facilitates, and develops quality registered apprenticeship programs throughout the state, with the goal of recruiting, training, and retaining a highly skilled and diverse workforce. Visit their site to better understand the benefits of apprenticeship and to search for apprenticeship opportunities.
  • Military: The United States Military Entrance Processing Command will answer your questions about enlistment and works closely with Recruiting Service partners to identify, recruit, and qualify individuals for military service.

1Data are limited about the share of these workers who are also apprenticing and/or obtaining certification or licensure.

Read PART 1 of our "Navigating life" series, where we look at college pathways for high school graduates.