Unlocking the Potential of Opportunity Youth

In the United States, one in nine young people is neither in school nor working. That’s 4.5 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24. This population, known as Opportunity Youth (OY), is disconnected in a way that leads to lower lifetime earnings and a higher likelihood of social isolation.

To solve this national challenge, we have to start locally. OY are, by definition, disconnected from major public and private institutions, and they often turn to smaller community providers for help. What can communities and employers do to engage this group of young people and unlock their potential? To answer that question, we spoke with young people, community organizations, schools, and employers. Our two recent reports, Career Pathways for Boston’s Opportunity Youth and Building Local: Lessons from Massachusetts Communities on Reengaging Opportunity Youth, take a look at what’s currently being done to support OY and what can be done better.

We teamed up with the Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative on Career Pathways for Boston’s Opportunity Youth, holding a series of focus groups with young people to gain insight into the educational experiences and career opportunities available across the city. Because they are disconnected from school and employment, the voices of OY are rarely part of the discussion when it comes to setting policy and practice around education and workforce development. Our goal was to uncover factors that contribute to young people’s alienation from school and employment by listening to their stories.

We found that OY have limited opportunities to explore potential careers. Many have little access to career role models and found few opportunities to explore their interests in school. They emphasized the importance of real-world experiences, but said unpaid internships are often not an option due to financial constraints.  

“There is an expectation to know what you want right out of high school but nothing to help navigate that,” said one young person.

“It’s hard to get something unless you know someone,” said another.

Most young people we talked to say their high school experiences did not set them on a path toward a career. They felt that schools focused on college preparation and offered limited support in developing real-world skills. Meanwhile, young people who attended college often couldn’t see links between their coursework and a career and struggled with the cost of tuition.

“High school doesn’t teach you about taxes, credit, mortgages. They don’t prepare you for the real world,” a focus group participant told us.

When it comes to employment, those we spoke with hoped employers would consider their individual skills rather than judging them based on their past records. In the workplace, OY say they benefit from a culturally competent work environment and mentors.

“Learn about me as a person. If you like me, I get a job. Make your own perception of me, don’t judge me based on this paper,” said one young person.

“My employer isn’t aware of our needs at all, as people. It is really hard to get employers to care, especially with family circumstances,” said another.

We also spoke with a range of service providers and experts in the field to understand the complicated terrain of services and supports that these young people must navigate to connect with educational and career pathways. Based on our conversations, we came up with a series of recommendations around supporting opportunities for career exploration, making K-12 education more relevant to careers and life, promoting “warm hand-offs” between service providers, helping young people make the most of employment opportunities, and cultivating employer leadership in the OY field.

Adding to our conclusions from this report, we took a closer look at how local organizations can support OY in Building Local: Lessons from Massachusetts Communities on Reengaging Opportunity Youth. Innovative solutions often come from local groups working with schools, government offices, and employers. But with so many independent components, it can be difficult for local leaders to begin building a more aligned system of supports. So, with generous support from the Clipper Ship Foundation, we created a blueprint to serve as a starting point for cities looking to address the needs of OY with an integrated and coordinated approach. After speaking with organizations across Massachusetts to find out what’s working and where there are gaps, we put together a series of recommendations around prevention, intervention, and retention.

When it comes to preventing disengagement from school and careers, communities should start as early as possible. This means keeping students on track for success in high school and helping provide a smooth transition to college and career. Communities must also address the needs of young people who are already disconnected from school and the workforce by helping them access and participate in education- or career-focused opportunities. And finally, to ensure that youth persist once they forge a connection with a program, school, or job, communities must help them confront obstacles like homelessness, hunger, and childcare needs along the way.

While there is much work to be done to better align OY-serving programs, there are also many strengths to build upon, starting with the gifts of the young people themselves and the deep commitment of individuals working within the field. These offer a solid foundation for city leaders eager to build a stronger and more responsive system for opportunity youth—and they offer hope that, someday, all young people will be well-served and well-supported to reach their full potential.


These two reports are the latest in a series of research through our partnership with the Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative. This includes 2017’s Opportunity Youth: College Success, which explores policies to improve college graduation rates for opportunity youth, 2016’s Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline, which looks at inequities in school discipline and dropout rates, and 2014’s Creating Pathways to Success for Opportunity Youth, which examines high school equivalency (HSE)-plus programs designed to provide a combination of academic and wraparound support services.

The percentage of opportunity youth is one key indicator the Rennie Center uses to assess progress in our education system. To learn about other indicators and look at progress over time or outcomes for different student groups, check out our interactive data dashboard.