April 21, 2016

Second Chances for Disconnected Youth: Lessons from NYC Project Rise

Project Rise graduates

Young people who drop out of high school face a disproportionate risk of negative social outcomes ranging from unemployment to engaging in criminal activities. Even among those who do get a job, average weekly earnings are significantly lower — around $488 for adults who lack a high school diploma or equivalency (HSE) versus $668 for those with a high school diploma and $1,101 with a bachelor’s degree. Sadly, in 2012, one in seven Americans ages 16 to 24 was neither working nor in school according to The Social Science Research Council. New York City also faced this challenge in 2012 with a high school dropout rate of 11.5 percent.  

Despite high unemployment for youth, the private sector laments the hardship in finding qualified employees. A 2014 report by JP Morgan Chase & Co. highlighted the opportunity to fill in middle-skill jobs, those requiring a high school degree and technical training but not a bachelor’s degree. In New York City, JP Morgan Chase found  significant growth in the availability of middle-skill jobs, with 44,000 jobs projected to open every year over the next five years.

If we can get disconnected and at-risk youth to attain their high school equivalency, those young people have a better chance of finding a pathway to the workforce or continue to post-secondary education, which can put them in a better position to fill this middle-skill job gap down the line. This is the aim of Project Rise. Drawing on the experiences of other programs for at-risk, out-of-school youth, the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City designed this unique 12-month program that provides educational and employment opportunities to disconnected youth.

What’s Special about Project Rise?

Project Rise combines high school equivalency instruction, strong case management, job readiness training, and paid internship opportunities. Through this model, Project Rise has created pathways that would otherwise be inaccessible to their target group: those aged 18 to 24 years who have been out of school and unemployed for at least six months and do not have a high school degree or equivalency. The goal of Project Rise is to help young people earn their high school equivalency and have paid work experience, and then help them transition to unsubsidized employment and/or further education.

Launched in mid-2011, Project Rise leverages a cohort-based model. So rather than starting at different times and enrolling individually, participants are grouped into a cohort of approximately 25 people and they engage in the full program together. This creates a sense of camaraderie between classmates that promotes peer support and accountability.

Moreover, it uses a nontraditional funding platform. Project Rise is a part of a federal Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grant to the Mayor’s Fund and CEO. CEO also won the Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation in 2012. Through SIF, Project Rise is supported by both public and private resources — where each federal dollar is matched by private and local contributors, and this system helps stretch the federal dollars to support services to a greater number of participants. Workforce development, particularly for young people, is certainly an issue in which public, private, and nonprofit sectors must work together, and SIF funding exemplifies this cooperative approach. Additionally, the federal SIF rules require programs to be evaluated, and to thus build the broader evidence base. Below, we discuss the results of the Project Rise evaluation.

Project Rise also invested in longer hours of HSE instruction than many similar programs. Project Rise participants engaged in an average of 160 HSE instructional hours in comparison to an average of 60 hours in a traditional HSE program. While this decision means greater time commitment, the preparation of graduates is better ensured.

What Can We Learn?

In October of 2015, research and evaluation firm MDRC issued the findings from its implementation and outcomes evaluation of Project Rise. The report touches on some of the challenges and opportunities in running this type of program.

Most people would expect participants to enroll in Project Rise because they wanted a paid internship. However, participants actually tended to be most attracted by the education component and the desire to earn their HSE.

The challenge of getting participants to pursue the program as planned is notable. Forty percent of the participants exited before the end of the 12-month period. Many of them faced life struggles that are beyond the program’s control including childcare (a particularly acute challenge) and housing instability. For any program to succeed, providers and policymakers must consider how to generate a supporting environment beyond the design of the program itself.

Like any program, Project Rise faces the question of how to measure impact, which is an especially challenging question since the evaluation was not an impact study. MDRC suggests that we might want to think about the progress participants have in communications skills or intermediate academic growth measurements, as they progress towards their HSE diplomas. Additionally, a sizable fraction of participants (about a quarter in the evaluation and likely higher over the life of the program) earned their HSE and a similar fraction transitioned to unsubsidized employment. MDRC is currently conducting impact evaluations of similar programs, and these evaluations will hopefully give the field a better idea of whether these strategies work.

Regardless of the implementation challenges, we should not give up trying to engage disconnected youth and connect them back to the workforce or education system. With programs like Project Rise, we must continue opening pathways to prosperity for young people.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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