Fast forward to 2030, when the last baby boomers are moving into retirement, the millennials are middle aged, and within 10 years about 50 percent of the U.S. population will be people of color. This demographic destiny—coming our way amid rising economic inequality and inadequate investments for growth—will define our nation’s economic strength in the 21st century. In 15 years, the needs of an aging population and the earnings power and capacity of our workforce to drive growth and support a thriving U.S. economy will simply not match up.
Unless we do something about it now.
Economic research on the overall earnings of young people entering the workforce in the teeth of the recessions indicates their future earnings power will be stunted by their poor job prospects and low starting wages. These adverse economic conditions further constrict the already limited employment prospects for 16-to-24 year olds—disproportionately individuals of color—who are neither in school nor in the workforce.
There are at least 6.7 million Opportunity Youth nationwide, or about one-sixth of the U.S. youth population. These youth do not have the skills and education they need to productively contribute in our society. Their disconnection—often precipitated or exacerbated by the failure of critical education, training, and social service systems—places an enormous and unnecessary economic burden on our nation. The direct service costs and the losses that will accrue in the form of forgone earnings and taxes over their lifetime are estimated at $4.75 trillion.
Yet this same segment of the population is expected to help generate wealth to maintain the intergenerational social contract encapsulated in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. To ensure a productive workforce that can also shoulder the costs associated with an aging population, we need to invest in our talent pipeline. And because people of color will account for all of net workforce growth in the United States by 2030, our economic vitality demands that the education and workforce systems meet their needs—not just the “talented tenth,” but all American youth.
Improving life outcomes for future generations of children is a moral imperative and an economic necessity. We need to ensure opportunity youth become productive, active members of society— and in doing so, eliminate the inevitable societal loss if we continue down our current path. These youth are a vital but as yet untapped source of intellectual energy, cultural vitality, and innovation. But for their talents to achieve escape velocity, we must work with them to overcome significant barriers.
We should start by making sure our education system meets their needs. Innovative models that bridge high school and postsecondary education have demonstrated success at increasing completion rates of students from backgrounds underrepresented in higher education. Early college high schools, for example, provide opportunities for students to earn an Associate’s degree or significant college credits while still in high school. There is variation—some early college high schools are located on a college campus while others bring college faculty to high schools—but the main idea is the same: exposing students to a college environment early and providing support while setting high expectations.
These programs are based on the need for every student to continue their education after high school and a belief that students’ past failures do not define their educational potential. This design has produced dramatic outcomes for students including our opportunity youth. One in three early college students complete an Associate’s degree or other credential prior to graduating high school, whereas nationally only 10 percent of students earn any college credit in high school. Early college high school students are also more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and persist for a second year.
Despite impressive results, the availability of these types of programs remains limited. According to analysis by Jobs for the Future, there are 280 early college high schools in 32 states, with an additional 56 new schools under development. In order to ensure that our opportunity youth have a chance to participate in high-growth occupational sectors and realize their full potential, we must move beyond our current status, which is best described as “program rich but system poor.” Instead, we must retool our education systems at the local, state, and federal level to help scale successful models of early college high schools.
We have examples of young people beating the odds, but that’s not enough. To continue to drive growth in the economy, we need to change the odds so that we capture the overlooked and underutilized talent of a significant portion of those 6.7 million opportunity youth. Smart education and workforce training policies, enacted now, can change the earning power and career trajectories for millions of these youth. That’s the America we must create in order to secure our economic future in 2030 and beyond.
Melody Barnes is the former Domestic Policy Advisor to President Obama and now Vice Provost for Global Student Leadership Initiatives at New York University, Chair of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, a member of the Year Up national board of directors, and a steering committee member of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a new grantmaking and research institution.