Degrees of Stability

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“Without a degree here,” says Kathie Carlson Tripp, leadership development executive for the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, “you hit a brick wall.”

In a field that that’s been built largely on the education of the street, more and more youth-serving agencies are filling their staffs with college graduates, even requiring master’s degrees and Ph.D.s for a growing number of positions, well beyond those traditionally held by mental health clinicians.

The agencies credit this movement with boosting staff salaries and professionalism, and with reducing staff turnover and lengths of stay for youths in group-care residential facilities. Some nonresidential youth programs, such as the YMCA, report similar gains.

But the evidence of higher ed’s impact is essentially anecdotal, and there are drawbacks: The trend has driven up costs and priced some small agencies out of the competition for college graduates.

Yet agency directors are convinced that hiring more degreed workers improves youth work. At Youth Villages in Memphis, Tenn., one recruiter reports visiting 65 colleges last semester. Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau, outside Cleveland, piles on benefits for degreed workers, then runs an annual fund-raiser to fill its budget gap.

“At the very least, 50 percent” of some 300,000 full- and part-time youth workers nationwide have college degrees, estimates Mark Krueger, director of the Youth Work Learning Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In many urban areas, he says, “this is probably as high as 60 percent or 70 percent.”

In an American post-secondary education boom that saw bachelor’s degrees increase 18 percent, master’s degrees 41 percent and doctorates 17 percent from 1990 to 2000, Krueger observes, “There are probably more degrees and undergraduate areas of concentration in youth work than ever before.”

And there is also rank-and-file demand to meet the supply, according to a recent study of youth development programs by the National 4-H Council. “It is increasingly clear that youth workers are calling for greater educational opportunity, increased support for professional development, clear standards for ethical and professional work, and more access to research-based guidance and best-practice lessons,” says the report, “Educating Youth Development Professionals: Current Realities, Future Potential.” These are “necessary components to an emerging profession’s identity.”

Dale Blyth, director of the Center for 4-H Development at the University of Minnesota, stresses the importance as well of an on-the-job education acquired by doing street outreach in the middle of the night, helping a pregnant 15-year-old or breaking up fights in a teen shelter. “I do not believe the field is well-served by [just] one approach” to training, he says. “But in many ways, [postsecondary education] is one marker of success in a growing field.”

David Nakada, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii, cautions that “no one should turn their back on a nondegreed person who is good with people, has street smarts and can initiate activities.” But Nakada also asserts that “a nondegreed person who is doing a good job would be even more effective if they were helped by their agency to get a degree.”
Nakada knows: He joined the Boys & Girls Club with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, but his supervisors encouraged him to get a higher degree “and it paid off for me.” He has a master’s degree in business.

The notion of launching a youth-work career with a college degree is not revolutionary. Jane Addams graduated from Rockford College in Illinois before founding Hull House.

Blyth’s prescription for “a continuum in youth work that utilizes research, theory and practice” was exemplified by the recently deceased Claude Brown, author of “Manchild in the Promised Land.” Brown was a teen gang member, shoplifter and hoodlum who did time at the now-closed Weltwyck School for Boys, got a sociology degree at Howard University, and launched a mentoring program in Harlem and an intervention program for troubled youth in Newark, N.J.

If Addams and Brown applied at youth-serving agencies today, those degrees would help their chances and their paychecks.

Driving Forces

For both workers and agencies, money is behind much of the push for degreed workers.

“A few years ago this was not the case, but now coming back to school to get degrees is tied into promotions, tied into pay,” says Dale DeMeuse, campus director of the Massachusetts-based Springfield College (SC) outreach campus in Milwaukee.

Each year the school, set on the first floor of the Metropolitan Milwaukee YMCA in the heart of downtown, awards 150 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in human services to youth workers (average age: 38), who comprise 40 percent of the graduates. (Many of the other graduates deal in youth work indirectly as police officers and counselors.)

The association between the YMCA and Springfield College goes back 116 years, when SC started a training academy for YMCA directors around the country. YMCA employees get “work credits” that are transferable to SC degree programs.

“The key to the college degree is promotability and career growth,” Tripp says. She offers this example of the career “brick wall” that lies ahead for workers without degrees: A non-degreed program coordinator starts at about $16,600 a year, but a “level 1” director with two years of college (and some previous experience) starts at $27,000; a degreed program director starts at the same salary but gets a $2,000 raise after one year.

At Memphis-based Youth Villages, where a youth worker’s salary averages in the low 20s, CEO Patrick Lawler fast-tracks raises at six-month intervals to quickly get an extra $500 into employees’ pockets. Bret Stockton, YV’s recruiting employment manager, supervises three full-time recruiters. They concentrate on small liberal arts schools that feature bachelor of arts programs with an emphasis on psychology and sociology to channel students into their home-based counseling and group care programs. Meetings with professors, classroom presentations and campus job fairs are parts of the job sell.

Of 611 YV staffers, some 79 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree.

So what’s in it for the agencies?


Some youth service providers see a correlation between degreed workers and staff stability.

At the YMCA, Tripp says turnover among her salaried professional staff is down by 2 percent since the SC campus opened in Milwaukee two years ago, while the overall retention rate of the entire staff is up 7 percent since 2000.

Over at YV, Lawler says, “Degreed people can grasp treatment approaches better. They’re more open to new methods. They are high-energy and committed to positive re-enforcement and long-term change.”

He notes that in past years older couples (often married) used the “house-parent model” in YV’s juvenile residential facilities. “They developed child-raising methods, they raised children. But the degreed people are taught to promote independent living, and accordingly have cut down on the time juveniles stay in our facilities.”

YV spokeswoman Deanna Blackledge says that “a number of factors, including outcomes management and pre-service training as administered and carried out by degreed workers,” has reduced the average stay of youngsters at YV from 284 days in 1992 to 187 days last year.

At Bellefaire in Ohio, a decision five years ago to hire only people with degrees (mostly master’s) “has made a huge difference in decreasing [the youngsters’] length of stay,” says Robert Schuppel, Bellefaire’s director of residential treatment. The agency operates cottages where up to 80 youths with various psychological troubles live until clinical teams deem them fit for release.

Sixteen of the 17 cottage supervisors have master’s of arts in education or psychology, or master’s of science in administration, the agency says.

Bellefaire Executive Director Adam Jacobs says “the new philosophy” that cut out “languishing” in the facilities, coupled with the emphasis on degreed workers, brought down the average length of stay from four years to seven months for staff-secure units, and reduced the time in nonsecure intermediate units as well.

The center’s human resource director, Betty Schiefstein, comes on equally strong about the staffing benefits. “Because of these hiring practices, our turnover rate for 2001 was 23 percent, down from 33 percent in 1996,” she says.

Theoretically, a more stable staff should be better trained and cut down on recruitment and training costs. However, they also cost more to keep.

Running a Deficit

Among the motivations for agencies to recruit degreed staff are enhanced financial reimbursements available in state contracts that use Medicaid money for an array of youth rehabilitative services. In the case of YV, TennCare (Tennessee’s version of Medicaid) requires degrees for therapeutic staff support (TSS) in residential facilities that care for troubled youth.

An indication of the kind of state Medicaid money available in the TSS area alone is provided by Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which channels funds to the state’s 67 counties. “In 1992 our TSS budget for youth 18 and under was $2 million. Today it is $300 million,” he says.

The requirements are a boon to both the youth field and the youngsters because the degreed workers provide higher expectations and performance that are “commensurate with the state’s responsibility,” Pagni says.

And some large agencies have enough funders who believe in the higher ed movement. At Youth Villages, a large local private-funding base has helped to pay for the agency’s rapid expansion and a year-in-advance budget commitment for the college blitz.

Asked how Bellefaire can afford a cost-of-living increase for its workforce in addition to ponying up tuition for all those willing to work flexible hours to pursue advanced degrees, Jacobs says. “We run a deficit every year. … We make up the deficit in our $20 million budget with an end-of-the-year fund drive that nets some $2 million.”

Some smaller agencies can’t keep up. Milwaukee’s St. Rose Residence, a private nonprofit residential treatment facility for girls, was, up until five years ago, required by state licensing criteria to hire degreed workers only.

“We used to hire degreed workers exclusively, because they came in with a higher knowledge base, had a higher work ethic and a low turnover rate,” recalls Deborah Zwicky, the treatment counselor supervisor. “But the pool dried up.”

Now, she says, St. Rose hires students working toward degrees. “Degreed workers now have a lot more youth worker opportunities than they did years ago,” Zwicky laments. “Pay was a problem, along with the required weekend work.”

And not everyone is convinced the higher pay is worth it for, say, a 2 percent reduction in staff turnover. But others see the anecdotal evidence as confirming an inherent belief in the value of a more formally educated workforce.

Says Blyth, “Higher education can sometimes be slow” to show results, “but it is also an important evolution in developing a recognized and valued profession.”

Bill Alexander can be reached at


Dale A. Blyth, Director
Center for 4-H Youth Development
University of Minnesota
200 Oak St. SE, Ste. 270B
Minneapolis, MN 55455
(800) 444-4238

Mark Krueger, Director
Youth Work Learning Center
161 W. Wisconsin Ave., Ste. 6000
Milwaukee, WI 53203-2602
(414) 227-3354

Kathie Carlson Tripp
Leadership Development Executive
YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee
161 W. Wisconsin Ave., Ste. 4000
Milwaukee, WI 53203-2601
(414) 224-9622

Bret Stockton
Recruiting Employment Manager
Youth Villages
P.O. Box 341154
Memphis, TN 38184-1154
(901) 252-7600

Robert Schuppel
Director of Residential Treatment
Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau
22001 Fairmount Blvd.
Shaker Heights, OH 44118
(216) 932-2800