A call to overhaul youth policy, programs

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As Congress prepares to take up legislation that would, in part, infuse billions of dollars into higher education and workforce development, a well-regarded research and policy institute is saying it’s also time to overhaul how to help youth and young adults attain a postsecondary education and work experience that will lead to good jobs.

Although young adults are benefiting from strong labor demand as the economy recovers from the Covid-related recession, millennials especially have struggled during this decade to launch into good-paying careers, due largely to three major recessions, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).

It also takes longer for young adults to establish their own economic independence.

“Most young adults used to have good jobs by their mid-20s; today, it takes most people until their early 30s to find a good job,” the report says. “This is because young people need more education and work experience to succeed in the labor market, and that education and experience is harder to acquire.”

The center notes that although more youth and young adults are in school or attending college — from 59% in 2000 to 68% in 2012, and remaining above 65% since then — the percentage of those not working or enrolled in school has remained in the double digits since 2000. And it’s more pronounced among some racial and ethnic groups.

“Since 2000, Black youth have consistently had unemployment rates double those of White and Asian youth, and Latino youth also have had unemployment rates that are consistently higher than those of White youth,” the report says.

Time for a revamp

CEW calls for a revamp of youth policy and programs, which it says is a “vast patchwork quilt” of programs, initiatives and funding streams that is fragmented across various silos in K–12 education, postsecondary education, private industry, and federal, state and local government entities.

“Today’s youth policy fails to guide young people as they navigate across different silos on their path to economic independence,” Anthony Carnevale, lead report author and CEW director, said in a press release. “We need a seamless, modernized strategy for reforming youth policy, centered around an all-one-system approach.”

In such an approach, preschools, elementary and secondary schools, community colleges, four-year universities, employers and governments would all follow an “integrated playbook,” helping to ease young people’s progress from pre-K–12 to college and work, the report says.

The center also notes that youth employment and job training programs have “suffered a significant, decades-long erosion” in public investment. Spending on these programs by the U.S. Labor Department declined by 53% between 1985 and 2017, it says.

“Tinkering at the margins will be insufficient to stem the huge losses of potential and opportunity that are currently occurring,” the report adds.

The criticism of the country’s job training system — for youth as well as adults — is not new, but the president’s Build Back Better (BBB) Act provides a unique opportunity to significantly change that. The center says the proposal would be “a first step toward comprehensive reform.”

The BBB, which the House passed in November, is supported by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). It contains items that AACC says would greatly benefit community colleges and their students, including two major job training programs focused on community colleges.

A widening gap

The changing economy and upgrades in workforce skills and knowledge are why a postsecondary education is important to ensure youth are ready for good, available jobs and careers, the report continues. Unfortunately, the education and job training systems haven’t done a good job of ensuring that, it says.

Higher demand for workers with more education and experience has translated into higher demand for older workers and lower demand for younger workers, the report says. As a result, the earnings of younger workers (ages 22 to 27) have barely improved since 1980, while the earnings of older workers (ages 55 and older) have grown by 35%.

“The experience of millennials is a testament to the failures of our fragmented system,” said Artem Gulish, CEW senior policy strategist and report co-author. “Millennials are at serious risk of becoming the first generation in recent history to be worse off financially than their parents, and we need system-wide change to ensure that future generations have better prospects.”

The report acknowledges there are programs that do a good job at creating comprehensive education and workforce preparation efforts, such as registered apprenticeships, career academies and guided pathways, but they need more scale and are often limited to certain settings.

Recommended changes

The center says systemic changes will require a broad career development framework that spans from pre-K-12, the postsecondary education system and the labor market. It recommends four broad areas:

  • Career awareness in pre-K though postsecondary. This would include formal and informal activities, such as field trips to local businesses, and chats with family and community members about their careers.
  • Career exploration and work exposure in middle school through postsecondary. Activities could include counseling, career fairs and job shadowing.
  • Career preparation in high school through postsecondary. Practical work experiences such as internships, youth apprenticeships and mentorships would be included.
  • Career training in postsecondary through the labor market. This would include college degrees and certificate programs, as well as other types of job training, such as boot camps, job training programs and apprenticeships.

The report highlights other key components that would help both individual students and systems in developing programs. For example, better data would help to gauge how successfully youth and young adults are transitioning. More and better training counselors — such as high school guidance counselors, career navigators, case managers and social workers — would be especially helpful for students that need the extra assistance.

“Without skilled guidance, the glut of information that may be available in the near future will be no more useful than the information void of the past,” the report says. “Accessible, skilled, credentialed and independent counseling will be crucial to ensuring that an all-in-one system approach optimizes young people’s journeys through education and into the early stages of their careers.”

A better transfer experience

The center also calls for a more seamless transfer of credentials among colleges, universities and employers. Barriers to transfer are substantial hurdles to racial and economic equity, it says.

“Black, Latino and low-income students are more likely to attempt to transfer from a community college to a four-year college than White and higher-income students,” the report says. “They are also less likely to have positive outcomes when they start at community colleges and attempt the transfer route to a bachelor’s degree.”

Policymakers can help in several ways, including:

  • Supporting making credits more mobile and financial aid more portable.
  • Encouraging colleges and universities to improve articulation agreements, including dual enrollments.
  • Mapping pathways to make it easier for students to navigate through the system and not lose credits.
  • Setting guarantee tuition prices and maximum time-to-degree for transfer students who follow a set program of study.
  • Requiring public four-year institutions to reserve 20% of their seats in the junior-year class each year for transfer students from community colleges so they get “full and fair consideration” when they apply to those colleges and universities.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.