Tech boot camps for teens. Data crunching that matches youth from high-crime neighborhoods to job opportunities. From San Jose to Atlanta, there are efforts to connect young people, particularly those from marginalized communities, to summer employment, well-paying careers and skills needed in today’s U.S. economy. But measuring the impact of such initiatives can be complicated. Counting summer jobs filled is on the easier side, but tracking an internship participant’s lifetime earnings is tougher to do.
Since 1996, Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Urban Alliance has had an internship program that focuses on reaching high school students who are at risk of becoming “disconnected” — neither attending college nor finding stable employment in a formal business setting. The program has expanded to Baltimore, Chicago and Northern Virginia, and now reaches around 500 students annually across all four sites.
Today, D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute published an evaluation of how 1,062 public high school students from Baltimore and D.C. fared after participating in that program. Specifically, researchers wanted to see if students went on to obtain a college degree. Ultimately, they found, the program made only a small difference in the number of students earning at least a two-year degree or enrolling in a third year of college.
The internships are paid. Students work after school for part of senior year and full time the summer after graduation. The intent is to give them a taste of what professional life would be like after college, and thereby a proverbial light at the end of the college tunnel. They get after-school training in hard skills like using Microsoft Excel, and soft skills like workplace communication. They’re guided through applying for federal student aid. Throughout the whole training and internship process, Urban Alliance staffers maintain coaching and mentoring relationships with students, checking in at least once a week.
The vast majority of students in the evaluation, 89 percent, were black. Eleven percent had a native language other than English. Their average GPA was 2.7. Most, 77 percent, had at least one employed adult in their household, and 56 percent lived with a single mother, 27 percent lived with two parents, and 5 percent with a single father. (Twelve percent had another living arrangement.) Seventy-five percent had a previous job. Seventy-seven percent lived in a neighborhood with an unemployment rate of 10 percent or higher, and roughly half lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 25 percent or higher.
Urban Institute researchers worked with Urban Alliance to sort students who applied to the program into two random groups. Two-thirds of the sample were offered the program (the treatment group) and one-third were not (the control group).
In the control group, 64 percent of students were enrolled in college two years after high school graduation, but only 45 percent completed at least one year of college, and only 21 percent received a two-year degree or were enrolled in a third year of college.
In the treatment group, 69 percent of students were enrolled in college two years after high school graduation, while only 52 percent completed at least one year of college, and 28 percent received a two-year degree or were enrolled in a third year of college.
That’s not to say the program’s numerous interventions were entirely meaningless. Rather, it only proves that the program did not have the precise impact that its implementers hoped it might. As the report notes, the internships didn’t significantly increase the percentage of students attending college, and a majority of those who did attend college still didn’t finish with a two-year degree or move onto at least a third year of college.
Designing a better program isn’t necessarily the answer to improving those numbers. The world is a sea of variables. A perfectly designed program may just be fighting against a current that is too big to overcome at a certain time, in a certain place, for certain individuals. This is an evaluation of just one program in one specific set of years touching a thousand students in two specific places, Baltimore and D.C.
In this case, income inequality and race remain major factors in determining who benefits from higher education — a current that is just too big for even one brilliantly designed program to fight against. As the evaluation authors note, other studies have shown that of first-time students starting at four-year institutions in 2007, 63 percent of white students graduated within six years, compared with only 41 percent of black students and 53 percent of Hispanic students. Also noted in the evaluation, among students who leave college after one year or less, 31 percent cite financial reasons — having to support themselves or their families through a lesser-paying job that pays now instead of investing resources to get a higher-paying job later.
Of course, going to college doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all in creating a more equitable economy. Perhaps the Urban Alliance program alumni will have an impact on the world in some other way. But we won’t really know how unless someone wants to pony up the cash to pay for that evaluation.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.