We as governors — along with decision makers in state legislatures, school boards, workforce boards, and city and county governments — assess each day the growing damage of COVID-19 to our economic, educational, social and health care systems. We are especially concerned about the millions of young Americans who have been away from school for many weeks and graduating seniors who seek to enter the workforce and higher education.
The latest national data highlights the growing risk that we may lose a critical part of our next generation.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell noted that 40% of all households earning $40,000 or less lost their jobs in March. Further, recent surveys of teachers reveal increases in truancy (27%) and dramatic declines in student engagement — up to 50% or higher in some cases, especially among poor and vulnerable youth, as the school year came to a close.
We are honored to lead Jobs for America's Graduates, which has helped highly vulnerable youth graduate and successfully transition to the workforce or post-secondary education for more than 40 years. For a year after high school graduation, JAG staff follow up and support graduates to ensure that they secure good jobs leading to good careers and, if they are interested, enter post-secondary education to add to their skills and their chances in the labor market.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Jobs for America's Graduates. More than 1.4 million youth have been served since our inception. JAG’s longevity and the fact that 13 governors serve on its national board of directors indicates its resilience and its remarkable success decade after decade, as we have seen firsthand, even during recessions and recoveries. The results JAG has achieved are consistent and compelling:
Since the inception of the organization four decades ago, the overall graduation rate has averaged more than 90%. For the Class of 2018, the graduation rate was 95.8% across 1,450 locations in 37 states.
After our 12 months of follow-up services to support students through the first crucial year after high school graduation, 44% have enrolled in higher education – and most are the first in their families to attend a post-secondary institution.
Most compelling, students in JAG are 230% more likely to secure full-time jobs as compared to all 18- to 20-year-olds.
States face tough choices
Even during the “Great Recession” from 2008 to 2010, those results remained consistent. However, today is different in so many ways from anything we have ever faced as a nation.
Policy makers at every level have many tough choices to make in the coming months. The damage to our state budgets is offset only in small part by help from the federal government. Yet public officials will be called upon to make decisions now that are among the most difficult any leader has had to make with so many urgent needs.
We are deeply concerned about the growing risk of many young Americans being left outside the educational system, the economy and American society.
Reports from the 1,450 schools that have JAG programs provide real-time experience that underlies the federal data. Most of the schools in which JAG operates are poor, with few resources to provide online education resources. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many school districts, overwhelmed with pressing issues, decided to close the schools for the rest of the year and gave students their final grades based upon their performance through the end of February.
Particularly in poor schools, few activities have been available to keep students engaged, other than the services JAG provides. The challenge is to keep students engaged (mostly remotely), invested and focused on accomplishing their goals, given their many other needs.
More students may drop out
For students without the kind of help JAG provides, many may be overwhelmed by decisions they must make in helping their families or in finding a job. Many, we fear, will decide not to return to their schools when they open again.
We are equally concerned about all the vulnerable high school seniors who are graduating and urgently need to make a living. Often, they must work to make ends meet for themselves and their families. Yet the job market is the worst in modern history. Those graduates will compete with millions of laid-off workers who have far more experience.
As difficult as it will be for public officials and those providing private sector help to determine the best use of funding, we urge decision makers to place a high priority on sustaining programs such as Jobs for America's Graduates. JAG is cost effective and has proven itself in ensuring that the most vulnerable members of the next generation are able to complete high school, find decent jobs and enroll in higher education if they desire.
The good news is that for only $1,200 per student per year — the amount of one stimulus check — Jobs for America's Graduates can make a decisive difference in saving that very high-risk portion of the next generation.
Small investments now can make all the difference for the next generation, which will pay a wide range of dividends for decades to come.
John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is governor of Louisiana; Kim Reynolds, a Republican, is governor of Iowa.
This letter initially appeared in USA Today.