Creating New Pathways for Youth Success in D.C.

The Washington, D.C. region routinely ranks highly on measures of economic health, even though in these recessionary times, “economic health” sometimes means you’re still suffering, just not as badly as the guy down the road.  And averages mask all kinds of disparities. For example, the city at the core of the region has both high average incomes and high poverty rates, and, as you can imagine, these figures do not refer to the same residents.

Let’s zoom in for a closer focus on a particular subset of Washington, D.C. residents to see how they’re doing:  young people. A successful transition to adulthood typically involves the achieving the following educational and employment milestones:

  • Finishing high school or earning an alternative credential,
  • Earning a two- or four-year college degree or a certificate with value in the labor market, and
  • Work experiences  (internships, part-time jobs, entry-level  jobs) that lead to jobs with good wages and opportunities for advancement

Other researchers have noted the dismal employment outlook nationally for young people, as well as the high school dropout crisis.  

Given this backdrop, it’s not surprising that the news regarding young people aged 16 to 24 in the District is not pretty. Nearly 9,000 District low-income young people aged 16 to 24 are not in school and are not working – one in ten of all young people. Unemployment rates among 16 to 19 year olds are at 50 percent.  (Scroll down to page 15 for the D.C. numbers.) High school graduation rates are below 50 percent. An analysis of a cohort of public school 9th graders in 2001 found that of every 100 students, 43 graduated from high school within five years, 29 enrolled in post-secondary education within 18 months of graduating high school, and nine earned a post-secondary degree within five years of enrolling in college.

These youth struggle to succeed in high school, post-secondary education, and the labor market. If we don’t create better pathways to adulthood for them, they will become the low-income, low-skilled, and unemployed D.C. residents of the future.

But we don’t have to accept the status quo. I go into more depth in a new paper, Strengthening Educational and Career Pathways for D.C. Youth, but here’s the short version. There’s a lot we can do.  Starting with the big picture, let’s acknowledge that there’s dignity in all kinds of learning and working, and get serious about building multiple pathways to high school completion and post-secondary education, instead of focusing only on the college-prep track leading to a four-year degree. Bring employers into high schools through “Career Academies.”  Integrate occupational skills with developmental education. Strengthen youth service corps and internship and co-op programs at the secondary and post-secondary levels. 

These are big challenges, but if we’re willing to make serious, positive, and necessarily disruptive changes, we can end the cycle of low expectations, low achievement, and limited employment prospects for young people stemming from the current educational and employment landscape.