New Directions: Creating Career Pathways for and with Opportunity Youth
In 2013, the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions started the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund to mobilize support for Opportunity Youth—16–24-year-olds who are disconnected from school and work. Due in large part to the groundwork laid by our existing collective impact initiatives, Boston won a place among these communities.
It is no surprise that local stakeholders were eager for this opportunity. Diverse, cross-sector initiatives had worked with the Boston Public Schools since 2004 to reduce the number of students dropping out of high school, and with postsecondary institutions since 2008 to increase the six-year college completion rate for high school graduates. Experience provided a sense of agency. We knew that approaches that include research, community voice, strategic planning and new interventions could have an impact on seemingly intractable problems—particularly when affiliated with a national campaign.
As we began this work, the stakes for young adults and for the community were clear. Young people who leave high school early face a high likelihood of poverty and other negative outcomes. Many of those who do not complete college or job training will struggle to make it into the middle class. While there were significant challenges to confronting these realities, the social and financial costs of inaction were and remain totally unacceptable.
Due to our progress in lowering the dropout rate, it only made sense for Boston’s Opportunity Youth Collaborative to focus its implementation efforts on Opportunity Youth with a high school credential—surprisingly, the largest segment of this population living in Boston at the time. We launched the Connection Center—a one-stop center that provided outreach, assessment and referral for these young adults. Through this project, we learned about the programs and institutions available to young people, and some of the barriers to program persistence and completion.
We engaged institutional leaders along the way—community college leaders, workforce agency directors, and policymakers— sharing what we learned through implementation and research. We also focused advocacy efforts on dropout prevention, partnering with the BPS on initiatives like the “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline” campaign.
This report summarizes the experiences of the Collaborative and its activities over the last six years. It highlights what we learned and makes recommendations for institutional and systemic changes. It concludes with an invitation for others working in this space to join us in the next phase of our convening.
Though the most substantial national grants have ended, much remains to be done. Our work, an improving economy, and the new focus on this population have resulted in a decrease in the number of Opportunity Youth. However, the needs of those who remain disconnected are even more complex. Their disengagement is our most glaring systemic failure; their potential for success, conversely, our greatest opportunity.