Too often, we are left to sink or swim: Young people discuss equitable pathways to opportunity

By and reprinted from the American Youth Policy Forum

AYPF recently conducted focus groups to obtain feedback from young people on creating equitable pathways to opportunities. The discussion with our young people surrounded access and success in post-secondary education and training that would directly lead to meaningful employment. Here are some of the valuable insights and reflections shared by our Youth Policy Consultants.

  • “Too often, we are left to sink or swim on our own and not given much information and support.” — Focus Group Participant

During the focus groups and individual interviews, Youth Policy Consultants suggested that both high schools and colleges need to offer clear information on the alignments between coursework, extracurricular activities, internships, job openings, careers, and salaries. As one Youth Policy Consultant shared, “This information is kind of ‘gate-keeped’ right now, and especially students from underserved backgrounds never learn these things.”

The Youth Policy Consultants also expressed the need for more—and simpler—information and guidance about applying for college and financial aid. They all emphasized that the complexity of completing the FAFSA and applying for scholarships and loans is a significant deterrent for students.

As stated in one interview, “I am a former foster child, and so I had a really hard time filling out my FAFSA because you need a lot of parental history, and I don’t have any of that. So, I didn’t know how to fill it out, I needed help. I couldn’t find the help, and so that’s why it took me so long to start pursuing education. I just felt so hopeless, like there’s no hope for me to get an education if I can’t even fill out the paperwork to get me financial aid.”

  • “I think having someone who had a background in systems involvement as well helped me connect on a different level. I think having a supportive person who believed in me as a first-generation college student was powerful.” — Focus Group Participant

All of our Youth Policy Consultants cited the importance of having access to one or more trusted advisors and mentors to provide information, advice, and counsel to youth on a human level as they encounter challenges and struggles in school and work. Mentors and advisors should help youth understand that they can often control their own destiny—at least in part—as they navigate college and career pathways.

One of our Youth Policy Consultants relayed how impactful it was to have a mentor: “I’m really grateful that when I was aging out of the system, I had a really awesome mentor in my life who helped me navigate that complicated system of applying to colleges and navigating how to fill out the FAFSA.”

Youth at work

  • “Just speaking from a marginalized group, some of us don’t even have a choice.… Some of us don’t have financial support from our families, so [work-based learning experiences need to have] a livable wage.” — Focus Group Participant

Youth Policy Consultants shared that, while the rising costs of attending college are a well-known significant barrier for most students, rising tuition is only one challenge. Especially for young people marginalized by systemic inequities, other costs are equally or even more significant—including housing, food, transportation, childcare, and books.

Any financial aid policies and interventions that don’t address these other factors will fall short of helping all our students. The Youth Policy Consultants also agreed that work-based learning must be an integral part of the educational experience for all students, and that paid internships and apprenticeships should be widely available.

  • Defining meaningful employment: “Something that provides economic stability; something where it doesn’t consume your life, and you have the option to pursue other interests, rest, personal, and mental health; something that engages you intellectually; and something where there is opportunity for growth.” — Focus Group Participant

At the end of their educational endeavors, our young people are all striving for careers that bring with them:

  • Meaningful and rewarding work
  • A livable wage that equitably reflects their contributions to the organization or company
  • Equitable opportunities for advancement
  • A work environment that is free of discrimination and that offers a healthy, supportive climate
  • Opportunities for professional and personal fulfillment.

But too often, that pathway is filled with obstacles that seem overwhelming and daunting, particularly for those with fewer resources (financial or otherwise):

  • How to pay for post-secondary education or training
  • How to pay for living costs while attending college or other educational training programs
  • What college or educational program to attend
  • Which courses to take
  • What major will lead to the career they want to pursue
  • Who they can turn to for guidance
  • What internships will not only provide the best work experiences but also pay the young people enough and allows them flexibility in hours to work their regular job and attend classes in addition to working at the internship.

Quotation from blog

  • “At the end of the day, this is for the youth. This is for the people who want to pursue an education and get to where they want to be in life, and to keep a focus on them because that’s who’s most important in this equation.” — Focus Group Participant

Overall, our Youth Policy Consultants were hopeful about the work to come and encouraged that organizations, such as the organization we worked with on this project, are seeking the insights and expertise of young people.

We commend organizations that seek meaningful engagement from young people and include youth voice—in both the strategy and implementation stages of their work. Organizations are much more likely to achieve their goals of creating equitable pathways to opportunities when they authentically and meaningfully engage with young people, particularly those marginalized by systemic inequities. And their efforts will have a real and sustained impact on those who face the most challenges to success.

To access the post about this discussion, please click here.