With the right support systems and opportunities, low-income young people who are neither working nor in school can reconnect to pathways for a better future. Recent analysis from Brookings finds that about 3 million low-income young people aged 16 to 24 fall into this “disconnected youth” category, highlighting the need to build more and better education and career pathways.
YouthBuild USA, Inc. represents part of the reconnection solution. Across the United States and in 21 countries, YouthBuild programs serve low-income young people aged 16 to 24 who previously left school without a diploma. This network of community-based organizations and schools helps about 16,000 young people per year earn a high school credential, develop professional and leadership skills, prepare for postsecondary and career success, and become community leaders.
Data from 2014 show that among all YouthBuild enrollees, 76 percent completed the program, 74 percent obtained a high school credential or industry-recognized certificate, and 54 percent went on to postsecondary education or employment. Of that 54 percent, 79 percent remained in school or at work for at least six months.
While these are positive performance figures, the field needs a stronger evidence base about how to best help disconnected young people. To generate more knowledge about what works, YouthBuild is in the midst of an evaluation conducted by MDRC and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. The evaluation includes a recently released process analysis examining YouthBuild’s program operations and the youth who participate; an impact analysis using random assignment to measure YouthBuild’s effects on participants’ educational, employment, and health outcomes; and a cost-effectiveness analysis comparing financial costs to benefits. These impact reports will be published in 2016 and 2018.
As Brookings and others have noted, programs that successfully help disconnected young people find a better path are not “low-touch” initiatives. Accordingly, YouthBuild’s program model emphasizes meaningful work and educational opportunities, and positive relationships with caring adults. Participants enroll full-time for an average of 10 months. They spend at least 50 percent of their time learning in academic settings and preparing for postsecondary education and at least 40 percent in hands-on job training in fields such as construction, healthcare, technology, and customer service. Service and leadership development activities are integrated throughout and represent the remaining program time. The integration of education and employment is critical: academic, occupational, and work readiness skills are often best learned when contextualized on worksites, where real work frames and reinforces the relevance of these skills. Moreover, YouthBuild instructors impart more than technical and academic skills. They form supportive relationships with participants that build from their strengths, address challenges, and empower learners to meet their short and longer-term goals.
Another key consideration for youth programs is that disconnected youth are not a homogenous population. Perhaps the most obvious distinguishing characteristic is age. Brookings found that about three-quarters of disconnected youth are between age 20 and 24, with the remainder falling into the 16 to 19 age category. YouthBuild has found that teen participants and those in their early 20s tend to bring different experiences, needs, and readiness levels into the programs. Work-related stipends are often critical for those in their early 20s. Many of these participants have young families and recent life experiences that motivate them to transform their lives, but they also need support to build resiliency and balance competing demands.
Unfortunately, many public systems and policies are geared more toward teens than young adults, and do not prioritize or incentivize strategies to reconnect those in their early 20s.
School district re-engagement efforts typically focus on younger teens who have been in school relatively recently. A common method used to measure high school graduation rates, the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, does not typically account for or measure young adults who have been out of school for multiple years. When schools succeed with this older population, their efforts are unlikely to be reflected in high school graduation measurements. This creates a disincentive to proactively re-engage young people who have been out of school for years, who lag in high school credit accumulation, and who bring a range of learning needs into classrooms.
Compounding the problem, most states restrict per-pupil educational funding to students under the age of 20 or 21, removing a critical funding source for alternative schools and programs helping young adults earn a high school credential.
One bright spot is California, where state policy allows state funding to follow learners into certain schools and programs regardless of their age. Consequently, YouthBuild programs reconnect more learners in California than any other state. Other programs like Conservation Corps are also able to reach more young people in California thanks to this policy.
Brookings is correct that there is no silver bullet to address youth disconnection and employment. However, we do know a great deal about what works: listening to the voices and perspectives of young people; offering holistic program interventions; funding and making use of research on effective reconnection strategies; and reforming policies to make it easier to direct resources to high-quality reconnection programs. The path is clear and the goal is achievable if we muster the political will and leadership.