Effective Approaches to Reengaging Young Adults

Annie E Casey Foundation
April 2022
three students who just graduated

In the United States today, more than four million young adults have disengaged from the K–12 education system without earning a diploma or GED and have not yet entered the workforce. School closures, the shift to virtual learning, and the pandemic-related economic slowdown are likely to increase this disengagement. Programs to help young people reengage with education exist, but there is not much available research about what makes such efforts effective.

To help address this gap in the research, the Annie E. Casey Foundation partnered with Education Northwest to evaluate young adult reengagement program models. The evaluation examines what outcomes the programs seek to achieve, what approach they use in pursuit of those outcomes, and how they have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evaluating What Works for Youth Reengagement

To evaluate program effectiveness, we chose six programs to study. Selection criteria included serving a diverse population, engaging in passive or active outreach, and representing geographic diversity in the U.S. The chosen programs were:

  • DC ReEngagement Center: Washington, DC
  • FastForward Re-Engagement Center: Dayton, Ohio
  • Opportunities for Young Adults: Phoenix, Arizona
  • Gateway to College, Front Range Community College: Westminster, Colorado
  • Gateway to College and Career Academy: Riverside, California
  • NXT Level Young Adults Opportunity Center: San Antonio, Texas

Then, the evaluation team conducted interviews and focus groups with program leaders, staff members, participants, alumni, and other stakeholders. The interviews were held over Zoom or in person and lasted 45–90 minutes. In addition, evaluators reviewed program documents, such as theories of change, logic models, implementation materials, and financial reports, to gain additional context. Finally, we administered a demographic survey to 35 of the program participants and alumni who took part in focus groups.

Recognizing Individual Contexts for Program Success

Participant responses indicated youth are intrinsically motivated to reengage to obtain a high school diploma or GED. Programs’ ability to differentiate support to meet individuals’ unique contexts was key to participants’ perceptions of success. Staff members did identify this need to differentiate, however, as a heavy burden.

Based on the evaluation, we recommend the programs review and reform policies that pose accountability, eligibility, and funding barriers for participants. We suggest programs facilitate strong support for participants without overly burdening staff members. Such support should recognize the nonlinear nature of the reengagement path, include financial aid for participants, and better incorporate participants’ voice in the process. Finally, the overall K–12 education system should improve support for young adults to reduce the number of people requiring reengagement in the first place.

Future investigations might identify successful candidates for each type of program and clarify theories of change. A second phase of this project will focus on participant outcomes in the DC ReEngagement Center, including what student population is served, what outcomes participants experience, how those outcomes compare with those of young adults who reengage with education by other means, and how the outcomes vary by student characteristics. This work will be completed by the end of May 2023.


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Project Team

  • Jacob Williams

    Managing Researcher, Applied Research & Systems Improvement

  • Kathryn Rooney

    Principal Researcher, Applied Research & Equitable Evaluation

  • Emi Fujita-Conrads

    Senior Researcher, Culturally Responsive & Equitable Evaluation

  • Christopher Mazzeo

    Senior Director, Applied Research & Equitable Evaluation

  • Destiny McLennan
    Destiny McLennan

    Senior Researcher, Applied Research & Equitable Evaluation