Postsecondary Success Strategies for Opportunity Youth

By Andrea Barnes

In today’s economy, postsecondary credentials are essential to securing good jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.  Whether it’s through college, vocational training, or a technical school, most youth want to obtain a postsecondary education. But for youth who have dropped out of high school, numerous barriers make it difficult or impossible for them to re-enter the education system. And even if they do obtain a high school diploma or GED, accessing and completing a postsecondary program is extremely challenging.  Youth may struggle to apply for financial aid, understand college culture, or secure counseling and academic support.  In response, many cities and states are now developing and implementing solutions that break down barriers and help youth achieve their dreams.

At a Congressional briefing last month, leaders of the Campaign for Youth, a coalition of national organizations, advocated for programs and policies to support postsecondary success for opportunity youth. Speakers included Terry Grobe (Jobs for the Future), Alan Melchior (Brandeis University), Scott Emerick (YouthBuild USA), Mala Thakur (National Youth Employment Coalition), Capri St. Vil (The Corps Network), H. Leigh Toney (Miami-Dade College), Alex Nock (Penn Hill Group), and Jennifer Brown Lerner (American Youth Policy Forum). Tyler Wilson (The Corps Network) moderated the briefing.

Jobs for the Future presented its Back on Track Through College model, aimed at creating more pathways for youth to achieve postsecondary credits and credentials. The framework is focused on three highly impactful interventions:

  1. Enriched preparation integrates high-quality college-ready instruction with strong academic and social supports.
  2. Postsecondary bridging builds college-ready skills and provides informed transition counseling.
  3. Support to completion offers appropriate supports to ensure postsecondary persistence and success, especially in the critical first year of postsecondary education.

Back on Track Through College has been implemented at 34 community-based sites in 17 states. Early data show promising results. An evaluation by the the Center for Youth and Communities at Brandeis University found that, across the three years of the pilot at National Youth Employment Coalition and YouthBuild sites, 73 percent of the students who entered college persisted two semesters or more. The Back on Track model is especially effective for court-involved youth, who must overcome social stigma, lack of access to resources, lack of employment opportunities, and unsupportive probation and parole requirements.

The key to the Back on Track model is partnership among secondary schools, postsecondary institutions, and community-based organizations.  Each entity brings something different and valuable to the partnership. Strategic secondary-postsecondary partnerships create academic acceleration, while community-based organizations (such as YouthBuild and NYEC-affiliated schools and programs) provide academic and social supports, as well as youth leadership and development opportunities.

Taking the Back on Track model to scale and expanding it to other communities will require policy change at all levels of government. At the federal level, Jobs for the Future makes the following recommendations:

  • The High School Graduation Initiative within the ESEA should be modified to focus more intentionally on proven dropout recovery pathways.
  • Congress should invest in research and development around new school and program models to aid disconnected youth.
  • Within the Department of Education, School Improvement Grants and the High School Graduation Initiative should require further community collaboration around dropout prevention and recovery.
  • Reinstate the Disconnected Youth Opportunity Tax Credit, which came out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and expired in 2011. It provided a tax incentive for employers to hire disconnected youth.