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Youth Disconnection in the Age of COVID-19

As colleges and universities face declining enrollments this year and potentially into next, there are plenty of concerns to consider with fewer students on campuses across the country: how will institutions fare financially? Can they survive a year or more of declining revenue? How will the communities that these institutions are embedded in handle declining student enrollment? Will local businesses and real estate suffer without the thriving student populations that normally infuse their economy?

But questions closer to my heart are focused on the students themselves: how are current students handling the pandemic, with increased social isolation, family stressors, and turbulent campus climates? Has their mental health suffered? Are they struggling academically? Have students who chose to stay home for the year to support their families or protect themselves from COVID-19 infection been able to attend school remotely? Or find meaningful jobs? And, critically — what has happened to the students who were planning to start college, training programs, or new jobs this past fall, but didn’t? Or couldn’t? What are they doing now? And who’s looking out for them?

The Impacts of Disconnection

You may have heard the term “disengaged youth” or “opportunity youth” referring to young people (ages 16 to 24) who aren’t in school or working. I prefer Measure of America’s “disconnected youth,” as I think it paints a more accurate picture of youth who — through no fault of their own — have been lost or disconnected from the very systems meant to support them. Certain youth are more likely to be disconnected than others, with Native American, Black, and Latino/a/x youth at higher rates of disconnection than white and Asian youth; males more likely to be disconnected than females; and differences in disconnection rates based on the rurality or urbanity of where a youth lives.

In the coming year, due to COVID-19, Measure of America estimates that the disconnection rate could reach as high as 25% — 1 in 4 youth.

In 2018, the rate of disconnected youth reached a low of 11.2%, recovering from a peak of 14.7% after the Great Recession. But in the coming year, due to COVID-19, Measure of America estimates that the disconnection rate could reach as high as 25% — 1 in 4 youth. And there’s plenty of evidence to support this alarming prediction: unemployment in the spring of 2020 was three times higher for young workers than in 2019 — with rates even higher for Black workers. Applications for federal student aid are down 9.4% from this time last year — with declines greater in high-minority high schools. And — alarmingly — fall 2020 enrollment for first-year students was down 13.1% this year. That’s 327,000 students who were potentially expected to enroll in college this year who didn’t.

According to Measure of America, “experiencing a period of disconnection as a young person can have profound effects on earnings, employment, homeownership, and health that last into one’s thirties.” Trite as it may sound, young people quite literally are our future. They impact the future economy through their spending, leadership, and productivity; and they impact the future fabric of society through their creativity, energy, and ideas. Damage done now could have irreparable effects on an entire generation.

Striving for Connection

It may seem obvious, but what disconnected youth need right now is connection. The safety nets that might have existed when they were in school or working — a mentor, a guidance counselor, a teacher or professor — may no longer be there. Providing community outreach or programming as supports can help reconnect 16-to-24-year-olds.

Financial incentives that help students apply and return to school, apprenticeship programs, career and technical training, or other opportunities for re-engagement can also be critical stepping stones to re-connection.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Different strategies and supports are necessary for different teenagers and young adults. Listening to youth, using a lens of trauma-informed community engagement, can be a good place to start when determining what it is that young people might need.

What investments are your community making to support disconnected youth? Or to prevent disconnection from the start? What strategies have you seen working to support re-connecting youth during the COVID-19 pandemic? We’d love to hear from you!


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