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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Programs and Policies to Assist High School Dropouts in the Transition to Adulthood
Dan Bloom


Dan Bloom of MDRC examines policies and programs designed to help high school dropouts improve their educational attainment and labor market outcomes. So called "second-chance" programs, he says, have long provided some combination of education, training, employment, counseling, and social services. But the research record on their effectiveness is fairly thin, he says, and the results are mixed.

Bloom describes eleven employment- or education-focused programs serving high school dropouts that have been rigorously evaluated over the past thirty years. Some relied heavily on paid work experience, while others focused more on job training or education. Some programs, especially those that offered paid work opportunities, generated significant increases in employment or earnings in the short term, but none of the studies that followed participants for more than a couple of years found lasting improvements in economic outcomes. Nevertheless, the findings provide an important foundation on which to build.

Because of the high individual and social costs of ignoring high school dropouts, the argument for investing more public funds in services, systems, and research for these young people is strong. The paucity of conclusive evidence, however, makes it hard to know how to direct resources and magnifies the importance of ensuring that all new initiatives provide for rigorous evaluation of their impacts.

Bloom concludes with recommendations for policy and research aimed at building on current efforts to expand and improve effective programs for dropouts while simultaneously developing and testing new approaches that might be more effective and strengthening local systems to support vulnerable young people. He stresses the importance of identifying and disseminating strategies to engage young people who are more seriously disconnected and unlikely to join programs. A recurring theme is that providing young people with opportunities for paid work may be useful both as an engagement tool and as a strategy for improving long-term labor market outcomes.