Changing Systems for Opportunity Youth: Six Common Barriers


By Justin Piff- Equal Measure Senior Director

For the past two years, Equal Measure has been evaluating the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions’ Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF), which aims to connect “opportunity youth” – young people between the ages of 16 to 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market – with education and workforce opportunities that lead to family-sustaining employment. Core to this approach is a focus on eliminating barriers youth face to achieving such outcomes.

We’ve seen communities develop a number of solutions to these complex challenges – developed through analysis of youth-level data; discussions with educators, service providers, and policymakers; and, most significantly, through conversations with youth themselves. While the communities participating in the OYIF differ significantly from one another – New York City, Chicago, the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, and rural Del Norte County, CA are among OYIF grantees – the challenges youth face remain similar. In fact, a look at the array of strategies OYIF communities are deploying to better support opportunity youth has revealed six common barriers. Developing policies and practices that address the following barriers is critical to creating systemic change that can benefit opportunity youth:

EqM 1_orange_smallOrganizational silos. One of the “root causes” of many systemic challenges facing opportunity youth, organizational silos prevent service providers and educational institutions from working with one another. Many educational institutions, for example, fail to address challenges affecting academic performance outside the classroom, including health issues, childcare, housing, and food security, to name a few. Similarly, many social service providers focus so intently on the immediate issues they’re presented with that they overlook needs not directly met by their agency. Through the OYIF, communities have taken steps to integrate education, employment, and service offerings through new policies, procedures, and communication that breaks down organizational silos. Many are also working to shift educator and provider mindsets – helping those working directly with youth to think holistically about who, within their networks, is best positioned to provide support for the youth they work with.

EqM 2_green_smallFinancial constraints. Financial constraints pose challenges for a substantial number of opportunity youth. In many instances, these constraints include relatively small expenses, typically under $500. Stipends, funds for textbooks, and fee waivers can make a significant difference for youth, providing just enough momentum and hope to open doors to new opportunities.

EqM 3_blue_smallEligibility criteria. When trying to access employment and educational programs, especially those that are publicly funded, youth are either “in” or “out.” Programs or policies that exclude youth because of age, documentation status, or criminal history can create challenges, and are often counterproductive. Collaboratives have tackled eligibility criteria to extend benefits for foster youth, as well as to give youth with a criminal record a second chance in obtaining employment. It’s important for policy makers – at the organizational, local, state, and federal levels – to consider who’s being denied opportunity because of their “status,” and to examine whether these rules truly are helping youth who most need it, or are just perpetuating inequity.

EqM 4_purple_smallDisconnected educational offerings. In the OYIF, as well as in many cradle-to-career initiatives geared toward improving educational pathways, youth commonly “stop out” at transition points – like upon graduation from high school or completion of a job training program. Without a clear handoff or help transitioning to “next steps,” youth can get lost in the system or lose momentum toward their ultimate goal. Educational institutions – such as GED programs and community colleges – can work together to encourage a seamless transition from completion of one program to enrollment in the other. Communication and coordination among educational institutions can keep youth on a pathway toward success.

EqM 5_orange_smallTiming and inefficiencies. When opportunity youth enroll in workforce or education programs, timing is critical. Long, drawn out program offerings, or seemingly endless courses or training programs without tangible effects, keep youth in a perpetual state of “waiting” while they continue to balance many competing demands, costing both time and money. By shortening college courses, offering college credit through paid internships, and offering stackable credentials, OYIF communities have helped youth move efficiently through the education-to-career pipeline, condensing the time it takes for youth to earn a credential or enter the workforce.

EqM 6_green_smallLocation and transportation. As we like to say, place matters. For opportunity youth, it really matters. Creating the conditions for youth to enter and succeed in education and the workforce means not only addressing systemic barriers, but physical barriers as well. Access to places of education and employment is critical. Costly bus fares or long commutes can make it hard for youth to access programs, services, and jobs. And great jobs across town aren’t great jobs if they’re hard to reach. Collaborating with partners that are nearby and accessible, and addressing other commuting-related barriers, is essential; it’s not enough to assume, “if you build it, they will come.”