Reconnecting Youths Without Diplomas

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An avalanche of important attention has been paid to America’s dropout crisis – the reasons for it and how to reverse it. But I believe we need to spend equal time and resources on the important issue of reconnecting young adults without a diploma to education, good jobs, and their communities.

Just because they have left high school prematurely does not mean they should be counted out. Sometimes it is precisely those young people who have dropped off the edge temporarily, faced reality in the streets and in prison, and decided to start again to change their lives who offer the best return on public investment.

There are more than two million low-income, 16- to-24-year-old Americans who are out of school and out of work, and another 300,000 in prison. We need to invest in programs that enable all of them to resume their educations while learning job skills.

How do we do that? The answer, experience has shown, lies in comprehensive programming that integrates education, hands-on job training, community service, personal counseling, leadership development and follow-up supports, including financial supports.

In more than 30 years of working with young people from the most impoverished backgrounds, I’ve seen that a powerful way to break the vicious cycle of poverty in America is by adequately investing in comprehensive approaches for disconnected youth. 

A number of effective national programs, such as Job Corps, Public Allies, Year Up, ChalleNGE,  Service and Conservation Corps, and YouthBuild, help out-of-school, unemployed young people get back on track toward positive, productive futures. AmeriCorps and National Civilian Community Corps are now making a point of enlisting low-income young people to serve their communities while earning education awards for college.  And some Youth Formula funds under the federal Workforce Investment Act are reserved for out-of-school youth, with the particular programmatic responses being locally determined. 

But for many of these programs, the problem is that demand simply far exceeds available slots. YouthBuild programs, for example, had 18,600 more applicants in 2009 than openings. There are precious few places for these young people to go when they are turned away.

We need to open the doors to all young people who are knocking and want a second chance. We must give them the education, training and personal support to rebuild their lives and their communities. We must create a continuous pathway to economic success to allow low-income young adults to take responsibility for their lives and families.

We should provide opportunities for young people to serve their communities. Offering them ways to make a difference is a crucial strategy. They rise to the challenge, transcend obstacles, and give back. It puts them in touch with their noblest aspirations, and then they are eager to become much-needed leaders in their communities who can help change the conditions that were so challenging to them as they grew up.

In earlier years, young people without a high school diploma were welcome in the military, where they resumed their education and experienced a respected public service role. But in recent years most military branches have not accepted young people without a diploma.

We must provide increased access to and support for completing higher education once the GED or diploma is obtained, and invest in developing more “green” jobs as well as careers in the health care field. With all of these investments, more low-income young adults, parents of children who would otherwise be raised in poverty, will achieve their potential, care for their children, contribute to the growth of the nation’s economy and give back to their communities. 

We also need to shore up the fragmented system for delivering services to youth by supporting approaches that put responsibility and resources into the hands of mayors and county leaders. At present, nobody really is accountable for youth who leave school prematurely and who fall between the cracks as they move from system to system. There are sometimes years between leaving the school system and landing in the very expensive prison system, or, if they are much more lucky, finding a second chance program.  During those years no public agency or official is responsible for finding and reconnecting these lost youth.

To his great credit, President Obama proposed a 2011 budget with increased funding for effective programs to connect these vulnerable young people to education and jobs, to a supportive community and to opportunities to serve their communities – to essentially offer them a second chance at putting their lives back on track. Especially in a tough economy, these programs are needed now more than ever.

In the days ahead, Congress faces difficult decisions on national budget priorities, but I urge lawmakers to continue investing generously in effective programs for out-of-school youth, because the long-term payoff is enormous. Studies have shown that the value of lost productivity for a high school dropout is estimated to be $390,000 to $580,000 over a lifetime.

On the other hand, we can turn these lives around with a relatively small investment. Full-time, year-long, comprehensive programs that include stipends for the youth for what they produce through hands-on job training or service cost from $18,000 to $28,000 a year – much less expensive than the huge cost to society caused by each individual’s failure to finish a high school education and become a productive citizen.

Dorothy Stoneman is president and founder of YouthBuild USA.