Once young people veer from the straight and direct path from high school through college, they find themselves with very limited opportunities. Many compete for low-wage jobs that are increasingly difficult to find; some enroll part-time in community college only to find themselves caught in an endless cycle of remediation, never getting to the degree or credential programs they seek; still others enter short-term adult training programs which are not intensive enough to help them develop the skills they will need or that employers are looking for.
Opportunity Links for Youth, an initiative of the James Irvine Foundation, is directed at developing new pathways to postsecondary credentials and career success for California’s opportunity youth. Innovative, high-performing community-based organizations and community colleges are working together in this initiative to enable these young people to acquire marketable technical and professional skills in one of two high-interest and high growth sectors—digital media or health care—while earning college credit towards credentials that will put them on a path to family-sustaining careers. JFF, together with a national faculty of experts from across the country, is supporting and documenting the work of these cutting edge partnerships.
The initiative starts from the recognition that community-based organizations are a new “front door” to community college for young people who are off-track, or disconnected from education and work. Through the partnership, young people get the help and support they need to prepare to succeed in postsecondary programs of study in high-demand fields, develop the technical and professional skills so critical to career advancement, traverse the “bridge” to postsecondary education, and persist through to completion of credentials with value in the labor market. The initiative represents the very best of what effective and innovative CBOs, community colleges, and industry partners can accomplish together, and will offer important lessons for this emerging national conversation.
Who Are Opportunity Youth?
Each year, over one million youth across the country become disconnected from the systems that are designed to educate and prepare them for their future. Community leaders and advocates have begun referring to the nation’s 6.7 million 16 to 24-year-olds who are neither enrolled in school or college nor participating in the labor market as “opportunity youth.” The term is meant to evoke both the optimism the young people express in regard to their futures, and to serve as a reminder to policymakers that investing in these futures represents an immense opportunity for employers and the nation.