The financial crisis of 2008 exposed serious weaknesses in the world's economic infrastructure. As a former aide to a mayor of New York and as deputy chancellor of the New York City Public Schools (the largest public school system in the United States), my chief concern—and a significant concern to IBM and other companies interested in global economic stability—has been the impact of global economic forces on youth employment. Across the United States and around the world, youth unemployment is a staggering problem, and one that is difficult to gauge with precision. One factor that makes it difficult to judge accurately is that many members of the youth population have yet to enter the workforce, making it hard to count those who are unable to get jobs. What we do know is that the scope of the problem is overwhelming. Youth unemployment in countries such as Greece and Spain is estimated at over 50 percent, while in the United States the rate may be 20 percent, 30 percent, or higher in some cities and states. Why is this problem so daunting? Why does it persist? And, most important, how can communities, educators, and employers work together to address it?
The Roots of Youth Unemployment
While we can take some solace in the fact that U.S. high school graduation rates are higher than they were 10 or 20 years ago, this good news is tempered by the reality that the high school diploma alone is no longer adequate preparation for a middle-class career. Young people who enter the workforce with only a high school diploma are expected to earn no more than $15 per hour, and many will earn less. The foundation of the problem is that America's school systems—largely controlled by states and local school districts—have not evolved their education models sufficiently to keep pace with the new demands of the global, knowledge-based economy. There is no "silver bullet" in the effort to improve education. Investments in early childhood education, expansions and restructurings of the school day, and [End Page 27] efforts to improve teacher quality all have been important. But some specific, focused, and targeted efforts directed at high schools are long overdue.
As local, national, and global economies have changed, fewer "living wage" jobs have been created or sustained for those who have only high school diplomas. Today's reality is that young people need postsecondary education (either a two-year or a four-year degree) and the requisite skills to be prepared for the jobs of the 21st century. The high school diploma is now the first step toward career readiness—not the last.
We also must focus on the relevance and rigor of America's high school programs. The acid test for the quality of our high school programs is the postsecondary success rate of their graduates, and the statistics are not encouraging. Currently, only 25 percent of young people who possess a high school diploma and register for community college will successfully complete their "two-year" degrees within six years. That means that 75 percent of community college registrants leave without their degrees and enter the competitive global workforce with neither the credentials nor the skills to earn a living wage. In some locales, the failure rate is even greater, as community college graduation rates hover in the single digits. And so the question becomes, why do so many American young people with high school diplomas fail to complete a two-year postsecondary degree?
An examination of one community college freshman class using IBM data analytics yielded some intriguing insights. Chief among them was that nearly 100 percent of community college freshmen who required two remedial courses—with one of them being math—failed to complete even one postsecondary semester. More than 50 percent of these students dropped out of community college within two months of matriculation. This drives home the point that unless a high school program is academically rigorous—in addition to being economically relevant—it is inadequate preparation for either the demands of postsecondary education or the training required to participate in the 21st-century economy.