National Guard Youth Academies: One Promising Option for Disconnected Youth

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A new study suggests that a program run by the National Guard can help dropouts who are ready to reconnect and move forward. The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program serves young people who are 16 to 18 years old, have dropped out of high school, are not heavily involved in the criminal justice system, and who can pass a drug test. 

ChalleNGe is a voluntary residential program that is staffed in part by military retirees and National Guard members.  Participants live at the program site, often on a military base, for 22 weeks. The daily schedule is highly structured, built around eight core components designed to promote positive youth development.

The program environment is sometimes described as quasi-military,  but there are no requirements for military service, and, in fact, most program graduates do not enlist in the military. After the program, participants return home and enter a post-residential mentoring phase for one year.

Although not very well known, ChalleNGe has been operating since the early 1990s and has served more than 100,000 youth. Currently, there are programs in more than half the states.

Clearly, a high-intensity volunteer program like ChalleNGe is not for everyone. Some dropouts have relatively strong academic skills and can reconnect through an alternative high school or a traditional GED preparation program. At the other end of the spectrum are young people who are struggling with disabilities or have very poor reading and math skills, and those who are profoundly alienated and do not volunteer for programs. 

MDRC, a nonprofit, non-partisan research organization, has been conducting an evaluation of ChalleNGe since 2005 in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation Network on Transitions to Adulthood. Because demand for the program is high, in 2005 and 2006, ten ChalleNGe program used a lottery for admissions, thereby forming two groups of youth: a program group that was invited to participate in ChalleNGe, and a control group that was not. MDRC has been following both groups over time using surveys.

Our study found that the program group was much more likely than the control group to have a high school diploma or GED (72 percent vs. 56 percent) and to have earned at least one college credit (35 percent vs. 19 percent). Program group members also earned about 20 percent more than their control group counterparts in the year prior to the survey, and they were also more likely to be working when interviewed (58 percent vs. 51 percent). In some other key areas, such as  arrests, there were no differences between the groups.

The long-term story is still uncertain. The survey was conducted in the depth of the recession, which has hit young workers particularly hard, and it is impossible to know whether ChalleNGe was more or less of a factor than it would be in normal economic circumstances. Young people who attended ChalleNGe academies expressed very warm feelings for the program but many also acknowledged that they were struggling to gain a firm foothold in the labor market or in college. MDRC recommended that ChalleNGe experiment with some strategies for enhancing the post-residential phase of the program.

There are many young high school dropouts who are looking for a fresh start, need to spend time away from negative peer influences or toxic family situations, and crave the sort of structure and discipline that ChalleNGe provides. In this time of fiscal constraints, the study results suggest that ChalleNGe is a valuable part of the menu of second-chance options for high school dropouts.

Dan Bloom is MDRC's director of the Health and Barriers to Employment Policy Area.