By Lindley Estes The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.
Hope Taylor was all packed for college last summer--she had paid a deposit, found a roommate, bought dorm furniture-- when she realized her dream wasn't to attend a four-year university.
Taylor, now 19, founded Hope Taylor Photography during her senior year at Massaponax High School and was already doing what she wanted. She decided to spend the next four years focusing on growing her business.
"It was all I had dreamed of doing," she said about being a photographer and entrepreneur. Now, 100 high school senior portraits and 23 wedding shoots later, she is opening an expanded studio in downtown Fredericksburg.
She's one of many young people in the U.S. who, looking at an improving economy, are entering the workforce rather than heading to college.
According to recent data by the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment fell nearly 2 percent in the spring semester from the year before, a trend that has remained steady for four years.
Two-year colleges have suffered enrollment losses, as well. According to the most recent U.S. census data available, total college enrollment dropped 2.3 percent to 19.5 million in 2014. Enrollment in two-year colleges fell 9.6 percent to 5.27 million students.
The high cost of education is also a burden some students would prefer not to bear, especially when job opportunities appear to be on the upswing. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a private, nonprofit, four-year university this school year was $31,231. At public, four-year schools, tuition and fees cost about $9,139.
Taylor won't be paying for school, but there are costs to opening a new business.
Her new studio, which she designed herself, is as bright and bubbly as her personality. It opened at 213 George St. in downtown Fredericksburg last week.
She was inspired to take the entrepreneurial route by her mother, who made custom cakes. Taylor's own employment experience also pointed her toward her own business. She worked for a clothing store in the Spotsylvania Towne Centre mall, and "was miserable" working for someone else.
It was then that she began taking photos with a camera purchased for a photojournalism class she enjoyed, and began teaching herself portraiture.
The decision to stay in Fredericksburg wasn't a complete surprise. Taylor had been accepted to the Savannah College of Art and Design but chose Radford to stay close to home and her photography business.
Her father, who returned to school as an adult, took convincing, as did her boyfriend, who was set to go to Radford with her. Taylor has been taking classes at Germanna Community College, learning online and going to creative conferences to network and learn more about the industry. She even learned to teach photography and will offer classes in her new studio.
But Taylor isn't content with just owning a business. She wanted to be part of a larger community, and is partnering with businesses downtown to offer clothes and accessories for her clients to be photographed in, in return for photos those shops can use in promotional materials.
"I want to change how the industry looks at itself," she said. "I want to emphasize the growing movement of community over competition."
Taylor is also passionate about accentuating natural beauty, rather than computer editing, when it comes to portraits. "I had a hard senior year, opening my business," she said. I want to capture the essence of who they are [in high school senior portraits] and help them be confident."
Even though Taylor declined her college acceptance, she plans on going back later for a degree in business or marketing. And she advises others to think critically about what a four-year degree would do for them, and perhaps go to community college and save money before making that leap.
She said her business was making money, so she pursued it. "College will always be there for me but my dream might not have been," she said.
"Actually, looking back, it was a very religious thing," Taylor said. "My heart was set on leaving and felt all of a sudden that was not in God's plan."