Expanding the Evidence Base for Reconnecting Opportunity Youth Pathways to Thriving

Henry Alexander
Jasmine James
Dana Shaat
Teenage girl talks during support group meeting
Support for this work was provided by the AIR Equity Initiative.

There are approximately 5 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in the United States who are not in school or working and are at risk of surviving rather than thriving. These young people are sometimes referred to as opportunity youth because of the opportunity and potential they have to thrive and succeed as individuals, community members, and contributors to our society. But opportunity becomes an empty promise if we cannot provide access to equitable opportunities for learning and development.

This research brief explores the research and practice evidence on strategies intended to support opportunity youth and identifies a researcher-practitioner learning agenda to support opportunity youth on a path to thriving.

Literature Review

Our expanded review of the literature for opportunity youth yielded some additional information about promising strategies to serve youth. This is an important step towards better understanding the collection of program strategies that are offered by many opportunity-youth serving programs.

Our extensive literature search revealed that there are very few studies that adequately define or evaluate interventions designed to serve opportunity youth who face a multitude of barriers in reconnecting, nor do these studies focus on generating evidence that allows for an in-depth investigation of opportunity youth subgroups.

From our experts assessment, this is due to two primary reasons:

  1. Many of the youth having difficulty reconnecting with school or work are not participating in programs because the barriers they face are not being addressed and because they are screened out by most of the traditional programs designed to serve opportunity youth, meaning there is little or no evidence for these subgroups; or
  2. Many studies aggregate all opportunity youth for analysis purposes and do not have a sufficient sample to disaggregate results for subpopulations. There are some exceptions to this, such as the National Study of Job Corps. However, even large programs with intensive education, training, and wraparound services do not yield long-term results for opportunity youth.

For these reasons, it is very difficult to determine what strategies are effective for the opportunity youth experiencing a multitude of barriers and how they would have fared if had they participated in programs.

Key Takeaways

This review yielded insights for a research agenda that aims to improve the understanding of what works for opportunity youth. To better support them, our experts identified two important priorities for evidence-building:

  • First, current approaches to evaluation often leave out large segments of opportunity youth; expanding data collection efforts to include specific sub-populations will be critical to providing more targeted supports. Future research should center the expertise of practitioners and opportunity youth.
  • Second, because current programs often employ a collection of several strategies, it is difficult to disentangle the relative effectiveness of each individual approach; further investigation of the sequencing and packaging of strategies is crucial to maximizing the potential for wrap-around supports.
Image of Mary Kay Dugan
Managing TA Consultant
Image of Jill Young
Senior Researcher