Urban Wire Programs Show How to Break Down Barriers to College, but Lacking Housing Supports Can Still Hold Young People Back
Theresa Anderson
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Many cities and localities have mounted targeted efforts to promote education and career pathways for “opportunity youth.” Engaging these young people—ages 16 to 24, who are not in school and not meaningfully employed—is critical to creating equitable pathways to opportunity, especially with an increasing number of people characterized as opportunity youth because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Promising strategies have emerged to help them, and we find these programs can be especially successful when they alleviate barriers for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students to complete secondary education and smooth the transition to college. But structural racism and other inequities can limit the effectiveness of these education interventions for opportunity youth, who are disproportionately young Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.

The Urban Institute evaluated JFF’s Back on Track model in seven cities and found the programs had significant impacts on the postsecondary enrollment opportunity youth by creating clear pathways and providing supports for common issues such as academic readiness, navigating postsecondary and career options, college affordability, transportation, and child care. But the program’s leaders also highlighted rental housing availability and affordability as major challenges that must be addressed to ensure even more opportunity youth, who have few familial supports and are disproportionately housing insecure, move forward in their education.

Alleviating structural barriers in education can help opportunity youth

The Urban Institute’s evaluation of the Opportunity Works initiative showed that participants were more likely to connect to education or employment as a result of the program. The Back on Track framework provides a set of principles and strategies to help community partnerships reconnect young people with education pathways, including sharing knowledge and successes, personalized guidance, connections to promising education and employment opportunities, mentorship from program graduates, and support for dual-enrolled students or those transitioning to college.

We found Opportunity Works participants enrolled in postsecondary programs at twice the rate of similar nonparticipants and were 25 percent more likely to either be in school or employed a year after entering the program. Young men of color saw even larger impacts, as they were nearly six times as likely to enroll in college. In a follow-up study in one city, we also found Opportunity Works alumni enrolled in college for almost two additional semesters and were more than eight times more likely to get a postsecondary credential.

The Opportunity Works programs helped young people overcome some structural challenges to accessing higher education, as those opportunities are not equal for all people. Decades of discriminatory educational and housing policies have left Black students more likely to attend high poverty, segregated elementary and secondary schools and have denied them resources to help prepare for college. As a result of these policies and other effects of structural racism, Black, Latinx, and American Indian and Alaska Native students are also more likely to leave high school before earning a diploma, leading to lower rates of college enrollment even if they have since earned a high school equivalency credential.

Colleges do not target their outreach, recruitment, and admission practices or peg affordability to the needs of these students. Our research shows efforts to overcome these structural challenges in college preparation and enrollment may pay large dividends in helping opportunity youth reach next steps in their education. During Opportunity Works, staff and young people developed meaningful mentoring relationships, worked together to identify education and employment goals, and created action plans to achieve those goals.

These programs helped young people who had not succeeded in traditional high school settings complete their high school equivalency credentials with a college preparatory focus. Staff members also worked with participants to smooth their transition into college by informing them of postsecondary options; navigating financial aid, admissions, and enrollment processes; and providing guidance and support after enrollment.

Housing instability can hinder students’ education even with other supports

Despite the successes of the Opportunity Works program, our evaluation highlighted other ongoing structural challenges the programs were not able to help participants overcome. Programs like Opportunity Works anticipate college affordability, child care, and transportation barriers and offer offsetting supports in their core services. But Opportunity Works program staff also indicated participants commonly encountered housing challenges. In fact, every one of the seven Opportunity Works communities cited housing as a primary reason for program attrition.

The lasting effects of racist policies in employment, housing, and criminal justice enforcement combined with the current rental affordability crisis have led to conditions that make it more likely Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people experience homelessness. Young people experiencing homelessness are more likely to drop out of high school, and many of the opportunity youth served in Opportunity Works were homeless or faced unstable living situations. Program staff found that their students’ housing issues often posed an insurmountable barrier to helping them achieve their goals. More than half of the Opportunity Works communities reported that participants were exposed to crime and violence in their neighborhoods, and program staff emphasized that many participants had less access to transportation in their neighborhoods.

Programs rarely have the leverage or resources to remediate the negative effects of housing availability and segregation on participants, as these challenges are policy issues. Opportunity Works program staff relied on referrals to public agencies or other community organizations for housing resources and other stabilizing assistance, but many found these community resources were insufficient and that the programs lacked funding to provide needed services directly.

When developing programs to assist opportunity youth, leaders must consider all of the structural challenges these young people are facing. In the next iteration of the Back on Track model as part of the Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential (LEAP) initiative, coordinated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, JFF is focusing on smoothing education pathways for young people involved in criminal justice or foster care systems and who are experiencing homelessness. This effort focuses on individual interventions and on the policy and structural reforms necessary to assist opportunity youth facing housing challenges. The Urban Institute is helping LEAP partnerships remediate structural barriers for young parents seeking better education and employment opportunities.

Program interventions can make an important difference in young people’s lives, but if they are not coordinated with policy and systemic interventions that explicitly address the effects of racism, they might not be enough to help young people reach their full potential.

Research Areas Children and youth Housing
Tags Higher education Racial and ethnic disparities Economic well-being Housing affordability Racial barriers to housing Racial equity in education
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population