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Opportunity in Our Backyard: How collaboration on summer youth employment can benefit both universities and local communities

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By Sruthi Naraharisetti, Natalie Peterson, and Jennifer Erb-Downward


Attaining a college degree is a well-recognized path to economic mobility in the United States, but enrollment gaps among students by family income persist. Interestingly, recent research finds this disparity to be particularly visible in communities where top ranked universities reside. In these communities, residents with no-affiliation to their local university face low rates of economic mobility from one generation to the next and universities see low rates of application and enrollment from nearby neighborhoods struggling with poverty. This pattern is reflective of the deep economic divides that exist between the families of students attending selective universities and local residents. On average, the median parent household income of college students at these schools is more than $62,000 greater than the median household income of residents in the community surrounding the college campus ($116,687 compared to $54,174, respectively).

Many schools are now actively seeking ways to bridge the divide between students and the surrounding community through local engagement and improved recruitment. This brief describes a unique partnership between Washtenaw County, MichiganWorks! and the University of Michigan (U-M) to pilot a university-engaged Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) and highlights opportunities this model presents for both universities and local youth. Data from this brief come from the first year of the partnership.

Key Findings

  • University-engaged summer youth employment programs are a promising strategy for building mutually beneficial relationships between universities and their surrounding communities. All youth participants surveyed reported a positive experience with the program and qualitative feedback from UM employers reflected similar sentiments.
  • The University of Michigan was able to reach local communities that have historically been underrepresented in college enrollment. Eighty-two percent of youth who participated in the program were from Washtenaw county ZIP codes with the highest child poverty rates where university enrollment has historically been low.
  • Participation in the SYEP increased comfort and preparedness for applying to college. Over 80% of youth surveyed reported that they felt more prepared to apply for college because of the program.
  • Program administration requires an initial investment by both community and academic partners, but partnership on summer youth employment is logistically feasible and mutually beneficial. University engagement in summer youth employment programs present opportunities to address persistent college application gaps among local low-income youth who do not apply to universities, despite their academic qualifications.


University-county SYEPs have the potential to unlock tremendous value and opportunity for universities to invest in the local community, recruit a diverse socio-economic student body to their campus from the surrounding area, and generally stimulate economic mobility by harnessing and supporting the capital of local area youth and programming. By building upon potential pipelines that already exist in the community, universities may improve recruitment of low income students from their local surroundings. The model of the University of Michigan’s engagement with Washtenaw County SYEP is replicable and mutually beneficial for both university and community participants. As universities across the country seek to bridge long-standing community-university economic divides, and broadly invest in the economic mobility of our next generation, engagement in county summer youth employment programs represent a promising opportunity.

Download PDF of full policy brief