Defying the Odds: Two Nonprofits Lift Low-Income Youth

Disadvantaged millennials have been socked by the economy. But focused mentoring can help get them into colleges and jobs.

National Journal
Khari Brown and Nathaniel Cole
Khari Brown Nathaniel Cole
May 8, 2014, 10:45 a.m.

The Great Re­ces­sion and un­em­ploy­ment have hit youth and young adults par­tic­u­larly hard. A Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion re­port re­leased in March paints a stark pic­ture of the na­tion­al un­em­ploy­ment rates for ad­oles­cents and mil­len­ni­als. The re­port shows that the lower the house­hold in­come and edu­ca­tion, the high­er the un­em­ploy­ment rate. More than 70 per­cent of young high school dro­pouts and half of high school gradu­ates without col­lege ex­per­i­ence were un­em­ployed in a giv­en month in 2011, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent fig­ures avail­able.

Con­sider the stiff chal­lenges these youth face. Those ages 16 to 24 without a high school dip­loma have an em­ploy­ment rate 12 per­cent­age points lower than those with a high school dip­loma. Over the next 10 years, Amer­ic­ans without col­lege de­grees will on av­er­age earn half as much in life­time in­come as gradu­ates of four-year col­leges.

This sober­ing trend for young­er work­ers is seen even in the Wash­ing­ton met­ro­pol­it­an re­gion, one of the strongest job mar­kets since the eco­nom­ic down­turn began. In the na­tion’s cap­it­al, the un­em­ploy­ment rate for teens and young adults has reached nearly 16 per­cent, a his­tor­ic high. It’s even worse for un­der­priv­ileged youth. Just look at the Dis­trict of Columbia’s two low­est in­come wards, where only one in three stu­dents gradu­ates from high school in five years. Only one in 20 earns a col­lege de­gree with­in five years.

That’s why our two non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions, Cap­it­al Part­ners for Edu­ca­tion and Urb­an Al­li­ance, are fo­cus­ing on highly mo­tiv­ated low-in­come or un­der-re­sourced stu­dents. We’re help­ing them to gradu­ate from high school and col­lege — as well as to se­cure a job and pur­sue a pro­fes­sion­al ca­reer — with spe­cial pro­grams de­signed to re­verse such long-term trends.

CPE provides ment­or­ing, com­munity ser­vice, and week­end work­shops, in­clud­ing ses­sions on col­lege ap­plic­a­tions, find­ing a ca­reer, résumé writ­ing, in­ter­view skills, and fin­an­cial lit­er­acy, all in part­ner­ship with UA and oth­er non­profits. The or­gan­iz­a­tion works with teen­agers and young adults, primar­ily between 14 and 19 years of age. Of its stu­dents, 69 per­cent are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and 20 per­cent His­pan­ic and Latino, with 27 per­cent liv­ing in un­der­served com­munit­ies. The av­er­age an­nu­al in­come for a CPE fam­ily of four is $26,551.

UA is largely sim­il­ar, provid­ing paid in­tern­ships to more than 1,200 youth dur­ing its 17-year his­tory. Its ap­proach com­bines paid in­tern­ships, primar­ily in cor­por­ate set­tings, ment­or­ing from an adult pro­fes­sion­al, case man­age­ment from a ded­ic­ated staff mem­ber, and weekly train­ings fo­cused on col­lege and ca­reer skills. More than 40 per­cent of its young adults, mainly 18 to 24 years old, live in poverty, with 44 per­cent resid­ing in the low­est in­come wards. Al­most all are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an.

The res­ults at both of our groups so far speak for them­selves. To date, CPE has at­tained a re­mark­able 99 per­cent col­lege en­roll­ment rate and a 70 per­cent col­lege com­ple­tion rate for its gradu­ates — more than triple the rate na­tion­ally and five times the rate in D.C. For its part, UA has achieved an equally astound­ing 100 per­cent high school gradu­ation rate, more than 80 per­cent post-sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion en­roll­ment — and, on av­er­age, 85 per­cent of its par­ti­cipants im­prove on crit­ic­al job skills.

The key pre­dict­or of col­lege suc­cess is so­cioeco­nom­ic status. Low-in­come, first-gen­er­a­tion-to-col­lege stu­dents are four times more likely to leave high­er edu­ca­tion after fresh­man year than peers. Those low-in­come stu­dents gradu­ate col­lege at half the rate as high­er in­come stu­dents.

In re­sponse to grow­ing con­cern over the is­sue, the Bank of Amer­ica Char­it­able Found­a­tion re­cently awar­ded each of our non­profits a $200,000 grant to ad­vance our ini­ti­at­ives — and, more spe­cific­ally, to help low-in­come young people gradu­ate from high school and col­lege, land a job, and pur­sue a ca­reer. Its Neigh­bor­hood Build­ers® pro­gram, now in its 10th year, couples lead­er­ship train­ing with an un­res­tric­ted grant for high-per­form­ing non­profits. Jeff Wood, the bank’s Great­er Wash­ing­ton mar­ket pres­id­ent, says, “The fund­ing will al­low these groups to con­tin­ue to help young people not only at­tain the skills needed to se­cure a job or at­tend col­lege, but suc­ceed in these set­tings as well.”

Just look at Ed­win, an am­bi­tious UA alum­nus. The sum­mer after gradu­at­ing from high school, Bank of Amer­ica ex­ten­ded him the op­por­tun­ity to fur­ther him­self as an in­tern. Today, Ed­win is study­ing civil en­gin­eer­ing as a Trachten­berg Schol­ar at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity. And con­sider Jas­min, a CPE alum who struggled in high school. She fin­ished her fresh­man year with a 1.7 GPA, put­ting her at risk of dis­missal from CPE. But a per­son­al let­ter she wrote to im­plore the pro­gram to let her keep go­ing con­vinced staff to give her a second chance. Jas­min earned a 3.0 GPA in her sopho­more year that year and is headed to col­lege this fall.

Nath­aniel Cole is as­so­ci­ate ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Urb­an Al­li­ance Na­tion­al Cap­it­al Re­gion, the lead­ing non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tion provid­ing in­tern­ships and job-skills train­ing to high school stu­dents from un­der-re­sourced com­munit­ies in Wash­ing­ton, Bal­timore, Chica­go, and North­ern Vir­gin­ia. Fol­low on Twit­ter @Urb­anAl­li­ance. Khari Brown is ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Cap­it­al Part­ners for Edu­ca­tion, an edu­ca­tion non­profit in Wash­ing­ton that helps highly mo­tiv­ated and low-in­come youth to at­tend and com­plete col­lege via a proven com­bin­a­tion of ment­or­ing, part­ner­ships with qual­ity high schools, and tu­ition as­sist­ance. Fol­low on Twit­ter @CPE4E­du­ca­tion.

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