Bridging the Opportunity Gap: Helping Vulnerable Students Succeed

Worldwide, there are nearly 75 million young people, ages 15 to 24, who are not in school and unemployed. This situation is being described as a global crisis which requires immediate, targeted and renewed action to tackle youth education and employment issues. The U.S. is no exception. Amidst high youth unemployment rates and a growing skills gap in our nation as the baby boom generation retires, our nation is also faced with a widening opportunity gap for vulnerable young people.  In the U.S. today there are nearly 6.7 million “disconnected” young people ages 14 to 24 that are homeless, in foster care, involved in the justice system, or are neither in school or employed. According to the White House Council for Community Solutions, this roughly equates to 1 in 6 young people in this age range.

Focusing on the education and employment needs of “disconnected” youth populations is critical to meeting the President’s goal of the United States, once again, producing the world’s highest proportion of college graduates, and the world’s most competitive workforce, by the year 2020.  As a part of the Education Drives America: 2012 Back to School Bus Tour, Secretary Duncan said, “America’s future is directly linked to the quality of education that we provide our children, young people, and adults. It is the key to a vibrant middle class, strong national security and our global economic competitiveness.”

In support of the President’s goal, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) hosted the 2013 Higher Education Programs (HEP) Project Directors’ Meeting on March 26-28. This meeting brought together ED representatives and national experts with grantees from programs administered by ED’s Office of Postsecondary Education. One focus of the meeting was building program capacity to serve under-represented and vulnerable student populations. Of particular note was the standing room only session, Improving Outcomes for Disconnected Youth Populations, moderated by Johan Uvin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the ED’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education and co-chair of the federal Interagency Forum for Disconnected Youth. This session focused on the implementation of the Higher Education Opportunities Act (2008) (HEOA) provisions related to serving students who are homeless or in foster care.

For the first time, HEOA calls for postsecondary education programs to reach out and offer supports to students from foster care and homeless students. “A growing number of colleges across the country have established effective support approaches for these independent young adults. Dreams of college success can become a reality for these students as every higher education institution welcomes and supports these students,” said panelist John Emerson, Postsecondary Education Advisor with Casey Family Programs.

The session provided participants with an overview of effective approaches for supporting these vulnerable students to a successful transition from high school graduation to college and careers. “College access programs are uniquely poised to help youth obtain the education that is their best chance of escaping poverty. Often these very vulnerable students have little support to help remove the barriers that stand in their way of being successful in school,” said panelist Barbara Duffield, Policy Director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Panelists discussed common challenges, focused outreach strategies and supports, the need to develop strategic partnerships, and resources available to support this population of students.

Bridging this opportunity gap and moving these young people from “disconnection” to full participants in the 21st century economy, will benefit our entire our entire nation by unleashing the untapped potential of these youth, strengthening the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce for decades to come.

For more information on federal efforts to support positive education outcomes for homeless and foster care students, visit ED’s National Center for Homeless Education and HHS’s National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections.

Annie Blackledge is a Casey Family Programs Senior Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education