President's Blog

Youth Unemployment and Access to Higher Education

By Callie LeRenard and Ángel Cabrera

In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the national unemployment rate at 7.9%, which is down from a high of 10% in October 2010.  When it comes to our youth, though, the January unemployment rate for those aged 18 – 29 was actually 13.1%. Add another 1.7 million youth that have given up looking for work and the US youth unemployment rate would increase to 16.2%. And if you’re a young African American, brace for an even higher unemployment rate of 22.1%.

Millennials are struggling to find jobs.  This is true not just in the US but throughout the OECD, where the average youth unemployment rate is 16%.

One of the surest things a millennial can do to beat the odds is to get a college degree.  Never mind the latest fad of questioning the value of higher education, it’s much easier for youth with college degrees to both find employment and retain it during tough times.  Indeed, the unemployment rate for those holding a bachelor’s degree in 2012 was 4.5%.

The national average of adults with a bachelor’s degree is 27.5%, but this number doesn’t reflect the disparity among ethnic groups – 29% of whites have a bachelor’s degree compared to 17.2% of African Americans and 12.6% of Hispanics.  Asians have a much higher level of achievement with 48.6% graduating from college.  It’s no coincidence that African Americans and Hispanics, who have the lowest bachelor’s degree achievement rates, also have higher than average unemployment rates.  Though education isn’t the only factor that leads to higher unemployment rates for minorities, it’s certainly one that can be addressed.  The question then becomes “what can we, as universities, do to combat this phenomenon?”

Increasing financial aid to low income students (many of whom are minorities) will provide part of the solution.  But the problem is not just a financial one. It is, to a great extent, social.  A number of programs exist help to identify young minority students and encourage and enable them to complete a bachelor’s degree.  Mason is involved with several of these programs in Northern Virginia.

One such program is the Pathway to the Baccalaureate Program, created by Northern Virginia Community College, Loudon County Public Schools and George Mason University in 2005.  This program aims to improve college access, success and completion for underrepresented students in Northern Virginia.  This program helps students transition from high school, through NOVA and on to a university of their choice.  Students receive one-on-one counseling and support (via workshops, scholarships, etc.) throughout this process and Mason offers guaranteed priority admission to students to complete the program with an Associate’s Degree and a GPA of 2.85 or above.

Mason also offers an Early Identification Program (EIP) that identifies and provides educational resources to middle and high school students who will be the first in their families to attend college.  Students receive financial support and educational support in the form of year round academic enrichment, personal and social development programs, civic engagement and leadership training.  Over 1,000 students have graduated from the program and 600 more are currently enrolled.

Despite their success, programs like Pathways and EIP can only help a limited number of students.  These programs must be supplemented by policy measures at the Universities that are designed to make a bachelor’s degree a reality for students who never thought this was an option.  Measures that have been successful at other universities include increased recruiting of low income and minority students, using transfer programs to admit more community college students and, of course, providing additional financial support for students who don’t qualify for Pell Grants.