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
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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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