More Connections, but Looser Ties?

Lazar TreschanIrene Lew

Marked increases in school and work rates,
sharp drops in disconnection,
as new questions emerge for New York City’s young adults.



Young adults in New York City today are more likely to be enrolled in school or working than at any point in decades.  The share of “disconnected” 18- to 24-year-olds who are neither in school, nor hold a job, is at just 15 percent of the age group, fewer than 118,000 young people in total.  Today’s disconnection rates and levels are far lower than in recent years and have fallen notably even since CSS’ last study of the population two years ago.1

These gains are worthy of celebration.  Far fewer young people are being left on the sidelines of constructive education or work, threatening their chance at a self-sufficient future.  Employment levels fluctuate with economic cycles, and youth disconnection rates will always do so correspondingly; but the increased attention that the City has paid over the past 15 years to graduating public high school students, as well as developing new programs to reconnect those who have become disconnected, may have borne fruit.2  As we acknowledge this progress, new public policy efforts may be required to address the changing nature of the current disconnected youth (DY) population.

Our analysis offers several suggestions for how public policy and private programs can address the challenges and opportunities of today’s young adult labor market, particularly as the New York City Mayor’s office convenes the city’s first-ever Disconnected Youth Task Force in February 2019.  The size of today’s disconnected population is notably smaller, but the need remains for support to engage those who are still on the sidelines, and to keep those most loosely connected from falling off track.  The reductions in DY numbers offer hope about the progress that is possible for young New Yorkers with concerted effort from public policy and nonprofit service providers.


More Work

Young adults in New York City are more likely to be working today than in recent years.  The employment-to-population ratio at the end of 2017 was 49 percent, meaning that one in two 18- to 24-year-olds held a job, whether or not they were also in school, caring for children, or had other responsibilities.  This is up from 42 percent in 2010 after the onset of the recession, and 48 percent in 2007, at the economy’s pre-recession peak.  Unemployment rates have also decreased significantly for young people, and while they remain above those of adults, that gap has narrowed in recent years.

Unemployment for young workers has not been this low since the early 1980s, which was a far different labor market, when positions for workers without a high school diploma were more available.  Many well-paying jobs for those with low levels of education in areas such as manufacturing, which tended to hire more males, have disappeared in favor of service and retail employment.  Young males have since substituted some of their labor force participation with increased school enrollment, as they seek the skills that will allow them to obtain better jobs.  Many more young women entered the labor market seeking work in the 1980s, and their work rates now largely mirror those of young men, particularly over the past ten years.

But along with this progress in the job market, we see trends that raise questions.  Despite high employment, since the recession, we see a notable shift to part-time work for young people who are not enrolled in school.  Part-time work may be more expected of young people who are also attending school; the fact that it has risen over the past decade for those that are not in school, despite a tight labor market, is concerning.

And except for some growth in the past two years, which could be attributed to increases in the minimum wage, New York City has seen seven years of an expanding economy without much in the way of improved earnings for young workers.

Standard economic theory holds that in tight labor markets, employers are pressured to increase wages and full- over part-time positions.  But that dynamic is not overly apparent today and may be mitigated by other labor market forces, such as requirements for benefits, and other gains employers get from using part-time labor.  These factors may be hurting the ability for younger workers to gain a more meaningful employment foothold and advance in careers.

The dynamics of the current labor market raise several questions:

  • Why are wages relatively stagnant despite a tight labor market, and how can we support young workers to increase their earnings? 
  • How do we support young people seeking full-time positions, but only able to find part-time work?
  • How do we support young people who need to balance school and work, and how can we use this as an opportunity to gain skills in their areas of study?


More School

In New York City, even as more young people have been able to find work, we have also seen rates of school enrollment increase.  High schools retain and graduate more students, more of whom enroll in college.  On its face, this is also positive: higher levels of education are not a guarantee of higher incomes in the future, but they generally offer young people more career options moving forward.

But along with increases in college enrollment, we find rapidly growing shares of young people who are leaving college without a degree—but often with, depleted financial aid and significant debt burdens.

Today, one in five of all New York City young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are not enrolled in school are college dropouts, a figure that was just one in seven only ten years ago.  While we may seek to celebrate high school graduation that leads to college enrollment, we are left to wonder if young people who enroll, but then drop out, are in a better place than if they had never enrolled in the first place.

Young people who have left college without a degree may be worse off than had they not enrolled in the first place, if they leave with financial burdens of debt and experiences of failure.  Colleges, however, may lack strong incentives to bolster graduation rates.  A new cohort of high school graduates is ready to replace non-completers on college campuses each year, with colleges facing few, if any, repercussions from this substitution of income.3  From a cynical view, public colleges (which enroll about 60 percent of students) may be making up for decreases in state and city investment with increased tuition and fees from new students whom they are not only failing to graduate but leaving far worse off than before.  Nonprofit and for-profit colleges (35 and 5 percent, respectively, of New York State college students) are also able to utilize each student’s federal and state grant funding and loan eligibility and have also seen  their enrollments rise.4

These trends in school enrollment raise another set of issues for policymakers:

  • How are we ensuring that high school graduates are better prepared to succeed in college and put themselves on pathways for meaningful career?
  • What factors are leading to college non-completion and how can we better prepare high school graduates for success?
  • What can colleges do to better support, retain, and graduate students?



NNew York City has paid greater attention to the disconnected youth population over the past 15 years.  Among other efforts, it has directed a greater share of federal funds that once served in-school youth to those who are out of school; it has created several new programs targeting disconnected young people, including the Young Adult Internship Program and the Young Adult Literacy Program; and it has given young people on public assistance more access to skill-building programs that can help them re-engage in school or work.  These efforts may have made it easier for more young people to find work.  And the public schools, particularly at the high school level, have done a much better job of retaining and graduating students, through a range of increased supports in traditional schools, as well as the development of a range of new programs that offer students multiple pathways to graduation.   This work should be valued and continued.5

These initiatives or policies, together with a strong local economy, have reduced the share and numbers of young people left out of school or work.  But those who remain disconnected today often face more serious problems/barriers to overcome and may require different or more intensive interventions.  CSS recommends that the city’s new Disconnected Youth Task Force should consider the following ideas, which we have organized into those that seek to reconnect young people currently out of school and out of work, and ways to prevent further growth or deepening of the challenges faced by that population.



Extend service timelines for existing DY programs. The current disconnected youth population is much smaller, but likely faces extremely high barriers to success.  Those unable to stay in school or find a job today are likely dealing with notable skill deficits, histories of trauma, legal and/or family concerns.  Getting them into and actively engaged in programming may require longer and more intensive recruitment by program providers.  Once in programs, today’s disconnected youth may need significantly more time to gain skills and address the challenges that are currently keeping them on the sidelines.  And post-program placement in school or work may require more resources, and retention supports.

Create a new near-DY service level.  Allow programs to serve loosely connected young people in part-time, low-wage work, or those at-risk of dropping out of college.  Programs that currently serve out of school, out of work youth, might be allowed to expand their eligible service pool to reach young people who are in part-time work but seeking full-time positions, or those who are at risk of dropping out of college. 

Create new programs or revise existing ones to better target the needs of the growing population of college non-completers, who now comprise one in five of all 18- to 24-year-olds in the city not currently enrolled in school.  These rates have risen dramatically in recent years, and young people with recent experiences of failure in college, and perhaps high levels of debt, might need new targeted supports, including assistance in dealing with student debt, to help them get back on track



Better connect school and work, improve advising

The high rates of college non-completion suggest that the pathway from high school, to college, to careers could be strengthened, because the data also show that young people who do not complete college are not doing so in order to step into good jobs.  College non-completers in New York State have higher rates of unemployment than those individuals with only a high school diploma, but no college experience.6  Disproportionately high numbers of low-income students major in liberal arts programs at community colleges, from which they have decreased rates of completion and earnings.7  Improved college advising for graduating high schoolers may help them select colleges where they have a greater likelihood of success, as has been demonstrated in recent studies.8  And the high rates of dropout and default visible at local for-profit colleges suggest the need to warn students at a more systemic level, through improved advising and or other public education efforts.9

The data also tell us that more young people work and attend school at the same time than in previous years.  But this may be a missed opportunity, in that there is little public infrastructure to connect a young person’s employment to their educational activities.  Students at the high school and college levels might benefit from concerted efforts to link these domains.  High school students, with exposure to different careers and supported work experience in the areas they find interesting, might be more likely to choose college programs in which they are more likely to graduate. 




1 Lazar Treschan and Irene Lew, “Barriers to Entry: Fewer Out of School and Out of Work Young Adults, as Warning Signs Emerge”, Community Service Society, February 2018.  (CSS conducted this report with support and collaboration of JobsFirstNYC.)  Data for this update comes from CSS analysis of the American Community Survey, conducted by the United States Census Bureau, unless otherwise noted.

2 In 2006, the City convened a Commission on Economic Opportunity, which identified disconnected youth as one of its three target populations.  Several new initiatives, discussed later in this document, were developed through that effort.

3 Tom Hilliard, “Degrees of Difficulty: Boosting College Success in New York City,” Center for an Urban Future, December 2017.

4 Ibid and Tom Hilliard, “Keeping New York’s For-Profit Colleges on Track”, Center for an Urban Future, April 2018.

5 Information on multiple pathways programs in the NYCDOE: The City has conducted several evaluations of its newer DY programs, including:

6 “Why Go to School?”, New York State Department of Labor,

7  Sandy Baum and Harry Holzer, “Do Too Many Community College Students Major in Liberal Arts?”, The Urban Institute, August 2017. 


9 Tom Hilliard, “Keeping New York’s For-Profit Colleges on Track,” Center for an Urban Future, April 2018.

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