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Who are “Opportunity Youth”?

The term “Opportunity Youth” often gets flung around in education and other youth-serving spaces, but it is often misunderstood or conflated with “At-Promise Youth”. While At-Promise Youth broadly refers to under-resourced young people in danger of dropping out, Opportunity Youth are more specifically young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who have already disengaged from school, and who are not participating in the labor market.

There are currently 4.6 million Opportunity Youth in the United States. This is 11.7% of all youth between the ages of 16 and 24. The proportion is higher in historically underserved and minority communities. For example, 17.2% of all Black youth between the ages of 16 and 24 are considered Opportunity Youth. Unfortunately, the current economic situation will likely inflate these figures, and amplify their inherent inequity.

According to the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, “Nearly 40 percent of our young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are weakly attached or unattached to school and work at some point during that formative stretch of their young lives.” In other words, the actual number of Opportunity Youth at any given point in time grossly understates how many young people will experience the long-term effects of educational, economic, and social disengagement.

Understanding how existing systems are failing to engage and tap into the rich lived experiences of talented youth is critical, not just for the future of our workforce, but for a truer understanding of the society we live in. The truth is, the reality of Opportunity Youth doesn’t comfortably coexist with our “culture of prosperity” narrative.

Any solution would be incomplete without a relentless focus on the quality and diversity of data as it relates to both tangible and intangible experiences of young people. We need more than anecdotal information about common barriers youth face when seeking opportunities in order to effectively dismantle them. Casting a wide data net means considering factors as seemingly unrelated as intergenerational trauma and transportation challenges together.

Furthermore, we must embed programs, learning resources, and partnerships with comprehensive supports that target these common systemic barriers to education and employment. These may include providing young people with year-round access to programs and services, multiple points of re-entry into school and work, leadership and personal empowerment coaching, restorative opportunities, and transportation subsidies.

Paying close attention to the terminology has cascading benefits. It enables us to identify and evaluate problems more precisely. In this case, it allows us to better understand the multi-dimensionality of social problems. Opportunity Youth programming is as much economic as it is educational. While these layers add complexity, they also lead to more creative solutions undergirded by novel ideas and unique community partnerships.

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