Working Paper

What Works for Disconnected Young People

A Scan of the Evidence


This paper was commissioned by the Youth Transition Funders Group in 2015. The purpose was to conduct a scan of the current state of the evidence regarding what works in helping disconnected young people, defined as the population of young people ages 16 to 24 who are not connected to work or school. To prepare the paper, MDRC conducted a literature review of relevant policies and programs. The literature reviewed included writing on impact, quasi-experimental, and implementation studies. MDRC also conducted reviews of numerous websites to learn about current policy trends and evaluations in process. To supplement what was learned from written materials, MDRC interviewed a number of practitioners in the field, including representatives from foundations, coalitions, and research organizations.

The main findings of this scan are:

  • Policies affecting disconnected young people span a range of systems, including public schools; adult basic and secondary education; and the juvenile justice, foster care, and mental health systems. As a result services, funding, and research are often uncoordinated and fragmented, though collective impact or system-level approaches are attempting to combat these challenges.

  • Though program impacts may be modest or short-lived, successful programs share some common features. These include: opportunities for paid work and the use of financial incentives; strong links among education, training, and the job market; the use of youth development approaches; comprehensive support services; and support after programs end.

  • Programs share some common implementation challenges, including: outreach and enrollment practices that may limit the populations they serve; difficulties keeping young people engaged in a program long enough to benefit from it; staff turnover; and difficulties addressing young people’s barriers to participation, particularly their lack of transportation and child care.

  • The field’s understanding of what works in serving disconnected young people could advance significantly in the coming years, as more than a dozen evaluations of programs are currently under way, including evaluations of collective impact approaches.

There are gaps in the existing services available: There are not enough programs for young people who are not motivated to reconnect to education or the job market on their own, nor for young people who have weak basic skills, especially those who have aged out of the public school system. The areas where there are gaps in services also tend to be areas where there is little evidence regarding what works.