Youth Engagement = Student Success

What do think of when you hear “youth engagement”?

I think of a critical strategy that has been successful in many places – but underused in many others.

Youth engagement – involving young people in the creation of their own destinies – is part of the solution to almost every education problem we’re trying to fix. In recent years, the education and youth-service fields have substantially increased youth engagement efforts and opportunities, reaping some wonderful results.

What we need now, however, is to build on this progress and what we’ve learned from it, so that we can do better. Here’s why:

All too often, we get to the youth engagement task last – after we’ve revised standards, restructured schedules, replaced educators. If and when we do get to it, we embrace it weakly.  We conduct a survey, hold a summit or appoint a few students to a board.

In many cases, we expect little from youth engagement and rarely sustain the effort, even though we’re consistently surprised by the positive results when it’s done well. Let’s talk about some of those positive results – then about why youth engagement is often treated as nonessential.     

First, we know that students’ personal engagement in school equals student success in school.

The Gallup Student Poll is in its third year.  It’s a simple, 20-question poll that school and communities can use to bring the voices of 5th- to 12th-graders into their discussions. Nationwide, the poll shows that only 50 percent of students report that they are engaged in school, that engagement declines with each grade and that engaged students are more likely to graduate/get good grades.

The Forum is encouraging communities to use the poll as the backdrop for face-to-face discussions with young people in which they tell their stories, offer opinions about why student engagement and hope are so low and propose strategies for change.


Second, we know that engaging disengaged students in reforming their high schools increases their personal engagement and performance in school.

The Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing recently published a study about organizing efforts that offered young people of color (who were often not succeeding in school) opportunities to come together to analyze their situations and advocate for improvements. It found that those efforts helped to: give the young people a sense of agency in their own lives; build their critical analysis and communications skills; improve their grades; increase their desire to go to college and take college-prep courses; and set them on a course toward life-time activism and commitment to long-term social change.


Third, we know that older students can be successfully engaged to mentor younger students.
When asked where they’d like to volunteer, college students name educational and youth-service organizations as their top choices. (See Using College Students as Mentors and Tutors, by Communities in Schools). High school students are similarly eager to mentor younger students, as Big Brothers Big Sisters has demonstrated through peer mentoring.

This is where our new challenge comes in.

All this research demonstrates the powerful impact that youth engagement has on individual success. If that’s as far as we go – if youth engagement looks like something that helps only its participants with no benefit to systems, organizations and communities as a whole – then it will continue to live on the edge. It will be seen as good, not essential.
We must make the case that, done correctly, youth engagement can be a strategy for transforming lives, transforming systems and – I’ll be bold – transforming society.  Here’s how we know:

The findings of the Gallup Student Poll tell us that engaged students are more likely to be engaged tax payers. They get more education and higher paying jobs. That’s a good long-term societal payoff from a pretty basic investment.   

The youth organizing study by the Funders Collaborative tells us that engaged students become effective advocates for change. Compared with a comparable national sample of less-involved youth, they log many more hours volunteering for political organizations, canvassing, contacting public officials, staging meetings about issues and engaging in community problem-solving. Equally important, they plan to stay active for the long term.

Studies of high school mentors by Public/Private Ventures tell us that youths can be effective mentors if they are well-trained, well-supervised and well-matched with their mentees.  Interviews with college students suggest that they can be effective mentors not only to high school students but also to other college students, especially first time college-goers, by helping to address the non-academic issues that often lead students to drop out.

So while youth engagement fosters immediate student success, it also delivers long-term payoffs for other young people and for society as a whole. It’s not just an add-on that makes people feel good for a while. Our schools and communities need youth engagement. And our leaders need to embrace youth engagement as a necessary component of positive and lasting change.