Lessons for the Education System from Youth Reengagement Programs

May 2023
zoom screenshots of teachers communicating

In the United States today, more than four million young adults have disengaged from the K–12 education system without graduating or entering the workforce. Meanwhile, school closures, the shift to virtual learning, and a general economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to lead to even more disengagement.

Various programs help students reengage in education. Education Northwest was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to study what approaches work best and collected findings and recommendations in a report, Effective Approaches to Reengaging Young Adults. But the lessons learned from this work apply not just to the reengagement programs themselves, but to the education system overall.

Reduce the Pipeline—Keep Students in School

While the reengagement work of the programs we studied is critical, perhaps the best approach is to support young adults before they drop out in the first place. In other words, reduce the pipeline of disengagement

The personalized support that reengagement programs offer young adults is extremely valuable—but there’s nothing these programs do that the school system couldn’t have done before disengagement occurred.

Many young people disengage from the K–12 system simply because they did not receive basic support when they needed it most. As one participant said about a period in their life when they and many of their peers were struggling, including with suicide, “… my peers were dying, and [the counselors] would just be like, ‘Oh, OK. I see that you have a D in English.’ And it’s like—that’s not really important to me right now.”

The flexibility, personalized support, and wrap-around services that reengagement programs offer young adults is extremely valuable—but there’s nothing these programs do that the school system couldn’t have done before disengagement occurred.

Students Make Their Own Decisions to Reengage

Our study looked at reengagement programs’ outreach efforts, which typically include recruitment events, information sessions for targeted communities, and referrals from partner school districts. However, advertising is not the main reason why young adults choose to reengage in education. Regardless of how they learned about the reengagement program, young adults’ motivations for enrolling are to improve their ability to earn a living, raise their quality of life, avoid becoming a negative role model for their children, or other personal factors.

Certainly, programs should ensure they are visible to the communities they seek to serve and that they make the advantages they offer clear. But as one program participant said, “It’s really about the person … You have to want to come to school. Now … I know better. And now I’m back in school.”

As noted in the report, reengagement programs can and should consider how they include student voice in program design more meaningfully and authentically. After all, participants can provide valuable insight into what works and what doesn’t—and that goes for the entire K–12 system, not just the programs focused on reengagement.

“The Streets Had Money”—Material Incentives Matter

Another lesson from this work is that while the benefits of education are many, the reasons young adults disengage are often starkly material. Staff members of various reengagement programs noted that the young adults they serve are often providers for their immediate family and must balance their educational goals with earning a living.

These young people often face situations in which they are forced to focus on short-term necessities such as food and housing even as they work to complete an education they hope will help them out of poverty. As one participant put it, “The streets had money. This program can help with education, but how long until the payout?” Without support from the education system, many young adults do not have the luxury of waiting for the improved prospects that may or may not come along with their degree.

Reengagement programs and the overall education system alike can mitigate these material pressures by offering more work/study opportunities, pay for performance, or a guaranteed amount of money upon completion of a program. Whatever the form of the incentive, the point is to reward students’ efforts and recognize that they have financial needs that add to the academic challenges they face.

Supporting a Better Future

By taking these lessons—reducing the disengagement pipeline, respecting students’ autonomy, and recognizing financial realities—into account, educators can better support young adults in their educational journeys. In the meantime, Education Northwest is working in partnership on the next phase of our research, examining outcomes for participant in reengagement programs , to continue our efforts to build understanding of how best to serve all students.