Opportunity Youth: Facts at a Glance

March 12, 2013


  • An estimated 6.7 million young people ages 16 to 24 are "opportunity youth," meaning they are neither enrolled in school nor employed.(1,2)
  • By definition, there are young people “who do not expect to enroll in school in the next year, have not been employed for at least six months, do not hold a college degree, are not disabled to prevent long-term employment, are not incarcerated, and are not a stay-at-home parent with a working spouse.” (1)
  • These young people are disproportionately male and from minority groups but substantial rates are found for all youth groups. Some reports, including 1, find they are more likely to be female.
  • “Some opportunity youth are chronic: they have never been in school or work after the age of 16. Others are under-attached: despite some schooling and some work experience beyond 16, these youth have not progressed through college or secured a stable attachment to the labor market. We estimate a chronic opportunity youth population of 3.4 million and an under-attached opportunity youth population of 3.3 million. Both groups are failing to build an economic foundation for adult independence.” (2)

The majority of opportunity youth surveyed agree that getting a good education and job is their responsibility, and their success depends on their own efforts.

  • Opportunity youth typically have fewer years of education, live away from their parents, have children, and are twice as likely to be poor when compared to their connected peers. (1)
  • Many but not all opportunity youth start out on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, according to a survey by FSG. Three in five say they grew up poor or working-class , and two in five opportunity youth describe their family’s economic situation when they were growing up as middle class or better. (3)
  • They are optimistic:when asked whether they saw themselves graduating from college or technical school, more than half (53 percent) say that they definitely thought they would do so, one-third (33 percent) say that they occasionally thought about it; only 14 percent say they never saw themselves as a graduate. (1)
  • Opportunity Youth take responsibility for their futures: in a survey administered in 2011, 77 percent agree with the statement that getting a good education and job is their own responsibility, and whether they succeed depends on their own effort. (1)
  • More than half (54 percent) of opportunity youth say they are looking for full-time work. (1)


  • There impact is felt by youth and their families, and by our nation as a whole.
  • Opportunity youth are more likely to live in poverty (and raise families in poverty), experience higher rates of incarceration and criminal justice involvement, and have poorer health than their connected peers.
  • Decisions made by youth have consequences into adulthood: individuals with limited labor market experience in youth have lower earnings in adulthood; incarcerated youth who commit crimes find it much harder to get work after release; and youth in poor health may be unable to find work that offers health insurance. (2)
  • If you drop out of high school, you’re likely to earn an average of $18,900 a year, compared to $25,900 for high school graduates and over $45,000 for college grads. Over a lifetime, a high school dropout will earn an average of $1 million less than a college graduate. (1)
  • Projections show that over the lifetime of these young people, taxpayers will assume a $1.6 trillion burden (in present values) to meet the increased needs and lost revenue from this group. (1,2)
  • Thus, the economic potential of an opportunity youth cohort is very large: In addition to the tax burden, over the full lifetime of a cohort of 6.7 million opportunity youth who are aged 16-24, the social burden—which includes lost earnings, additional health costs, and crime costs—adds another $4.75 trillion. (2)


  • Some young people disconnect because of personal situations: educational struggles, incarceration, teen parenthood, family caregiving responsibilities.
  • Often, the challenges that these youth face relate to a failure of the systems designed to support them. Including:
    • a mismatch between available education options and a youth’s needs and goals
    • policies that focus disproportionately on discipline over rehabilitation
    • a lack of special services that allow youth to remain engaged (such as childcare or transportation
    • educational disruptions caused by involvement with the foster care or juvenile justice system coupled with a deficiency of on-ramps provided to get youth back on track.” (3)
  • In even the best of cases, programs and services for young people are disconnected and fragmented. In the worst cases, some communities lack high-quality services that can reach the most challenged youth.
  • In addition, too little funding is currently directed to Opportunity Youth specifically, making it difficult for these youth to learn about, access, and benefit from the programs that could help them. (3)


  • In communities with dropout rates exceeding 50 percent, it will take interventions at scale to put young people back on track to re-engage them in school, work and civic life.
  • While there are multiple pathways to education and career success for Opportunity Youth, the development of these pathways typically draws upon four common components:
    • Re-engagement. Identifying youth who have been disconnected from education and careers on a local level, understanding the specific needs of the population, and working closely with youth to connect them to programs and supports that help them surmount their individual challenges.
    • Educational Momentum. Helping youth reach early and frequent education milestones in addition to attaining longer term education goals, such as completing a high school degree, GED, and postsecondary credential or degree.
    • Connection to Career. Connecting youth with relevant work experiences to help them gain the credentials and connections that will facilitate their entry into family -supporting careers.
    • Youth Development. Developing the leadership skills and addressing the social and emotional needs of youth to help them become engaged and productive members of their communities

This section of the SparkAction site, the All In for Opportunity campaign, explores the many examples of effective approaches in policy, funding and practice to rebuilt pathways to productivity for opportunity youth.


Stephen Patrick and Patrice Cromwell said it best in the forward to FSG’s Collective Impact for Opportunity Youth (3):   “This is an important moment in time for Opportunity … [who] have gone largely unrecognized at the national level and have been underserved by the systems designed to support them.

“For the first time in decades, there is authentic focus and a strong call to action from the highest levels of government, pushing us to break down institutional silos and pull together across sectors on behalf of, and with, Opportunity Youth.

“Employers in today’s economy face critical needs that can be addressed by supporting this population. We are currently experiencing the lowest levels of youth employment our country has seen since World War II. Yet jobs go unfilled because employers cannot find the skilled talent they need. If we are able to better educate and equip our nation’s youth for the workforce, they possess tremendous untapped talent for our business and our economy.”


  1. Opportunity Road: The Promise & Challenge of America’s Forgotten Youth (Civic Enterprises, America’s Promise Alliance, Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Forum for Youth Investment, Jobs for the Future, and YouthBuild USA, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, James Irvine Foundation, January 2012)
  2. The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth (Corporation for Community & National Service, Civic Enterprises and W. K. Kellogg Foundation, January 2012)
  3. Collective Impact for Opportunity Youth (FSG, 2012)