In the Aftermath of the Recession: Supporting Youth who have Dropped Out

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What has happened to youth who dropped out of school in the 90’s? Jonathan works in a community college as security, still seeking that degree. Evan is homeless and sleeps in the trains. Alicia is on her way to a master’s and a teaching career. Her 21 year old daughter is on her way to college. And Sammy, sweet-natured, enterprising: dead in a gun fight over drug turf.

-Peter Kleinbard, notes on follow-up interviews in 2008 with participants in a GED program he directed.

In the past, about half of the students who dropped out of high school eventually got both a diploma and a job. But this is changing. Today, dropouts have the highest unemployment rates ever recorded for these youth, and public dollars for their further education are declining.

The problem is exacerbated by the recent recession, but the problem is structural and will get worse unless addressed by aggressive policy initiatives. Jobs with family-supporting wages require higher skills than in the past and there are fewer of them. Youth of color experience the worst of it.

While preventing future dropouts is the priority, there are 3.5 million youth who are out of school and not working right now. Their existence means that our nation will pay a high price in social costs, lost tax revenue and personal income in future years. Just as for high school youth, these young people need multiple pathways after high school, combinations of highly structured work experiences or community service and education that link to paid jobs and further education.

The period between 16 and 24 years of age is one of great potential for growth. But lack of the opportunities provided by work and education stunts the development of skills and attitudes necessary for success in the labor market. Lifetime earnings and even marriage potential are reduced by prolonged unemployment.

Encouraging news is emerging from leading young adult “brands”: YouthBuild, Year Up, City Year, and  AmeriCorps. These focus, however, on youth who have diplomas or are close to attaining them. This is true also for the Workforce Investment Act for Out of School Youth (WIA OSY), the largest public funding stream, in which financial incentives force providers to serve higher achieving youth.

Policy and practice solutions must address those who are least skilled. Most dropouts are not even eligible for GED level training because of low skills. But many can make rapid progress towards further education and work if provided the right opportunities

Reading comprehension, writing, math and problem solving are essential for success in today’s workforce. This calls for a change among programs for dropouts, balancing work experiences with strong education informed by youth development. Such a shift means that organizations must increase capacity, requiring training and, often, restructuring. Today, much of what passes for education in the young adult field is merely test prep.

We must look for opportunities to build pathways, linking programs that help youth to move to higher levels of proficiency and connect them to paid work and further education. Currently, major funding streams, such as WIA Adult Basic Education and WIA OSY are “siloed” such that youth rarely move to higher-level programs even if they improve their skills. Similarly, schools and colleges can benefit from connections to CBOs that refer students and then support them by working collaboratively. Many CBOs are skilled at working with older youth and committed to their success.

In the past, private foundations have led, working with public funding sources to cultivate initiatives such as YouthBuild, NYC’s Multiple Pathways to Graduation, and Philadelphia’s Project U Turn. Their efforts have changed the prospects for thousands of young people and attracted public dollars. Foundation reports such as Connected by 25 and The Forgotten Half have influenced new public policies.

Enabling thousands of young adults to further their education and work experience will reduce future social and personal costs and build a more equitable society. Given the current lack of public dollars and the political impasse, the private sector – funders, non-profits, and community-minded business - must again lead the way, setting the stage for new public policy in the future. In undertaking this work, expanding successful efforts that have been rigorously evaluated will be important, But even more so will be aggressive advocacy building on evidence, and addressing the social and economic costs of failure.