Opportunity In Our Backyard: How Collaboration On Summer Youth Employment Can Benefit Both Universities And Local Communities

Back to Policy Briefs

March 2019

By Sruthi Naraharisetti, Graduate Research Assistant, Poverty Solutions; Natalie Peterson, Graduate Research Assistant, Poverty Solutions; Jennifer Erb-Downward, Senior Research Associate, Poverty Solutions

Download printable version (Adobe PDF)


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 (UM) 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.


In fall 2016, Poverty Solutions at U-M began collaborating with Washtenaw County on a pilot of a campus-based Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), with the goal to employ 30-50 young people in the summer of 2017 in departments across the university. U-M and the County both agreed to target youth from two high-poverty Washtenaw County zip codes.

All participating youth received six hours of professional development training prior to employment and were guaranteed 10-week job placements at 20 hours per week. For youth employed at U-M their positions were supplemented with additional job supports including:

  • Formal mentoring by individuals close in age to the youth themselves (“near peers”). These “success coaches,” served dual purposes: to provide support for the summer job experience, and to serve as college-going role models for youth in the program. Youth met at least weekly with their success coach.
  • Paid skill-development sessions. On Friday of each week, the student employees obtained educational content organized by campus experts, facilitated by success coaches and featuring topics such as effective communication, healthy relationships, college and financial aid, conflict management, technology skills, and leadership.
  • Employer training. The site supervisors for each U-M summer youth employee also received training at the beginning of the program and were provided with a direct link to the success coach of the youth working in their department. This enhanced supervisor ability to manage youth, some for whom this was their first job experience, and the communication support structure served to identify and resolve issues faced by the employer or the youth employee.

In addition to providing supplemental professional development supports for youth in U-M job placements, U-M also coordinated and supported the internal U-M employer outreach and hiring process, supported administration of the overall program and tracked and evaluated program Impact. This coordination between community partners allowed for the randomization of youth into University or County job placements and was done to support rigorous future evaluation of program activities.

Surprises & Successes

In summer 2017, a total of 229 Washtenaw County SYEP applications were received, 153 youth were accepted into the program, and 77 youth were placed into either a U-M or County job.

One surprise at the very start of the program was the large drop off in number of students from the point of acceptance into the program to the first day of employment (153 to 79 respectively). The low participation rate by summer youth in the orientation session (64 youth) was also a surprise. This resulted in significant follow up and outreach support to engage more youth at the onset of the program. During the program’s second year, these findings led to the provision of a stipend for participation in pre-employment program orientation sessions. Because of this change early program attrition was dramatically reduced in year two.

A clear success of the program in the pilot year was its ability to reach youth from the targeted zip codes while remaining open to all applicants regardless of economic background. Ninety-five percent of all participating youth lived in Washtenaw County and 82% lived in the two targeted county zip codes with the highest child poverty rates (21% and 32%). The majority of the remaining youth lived in areas where the child poverty rate was above the countywide average (13.7%).

In addition to coming primarily from the geographically targeted areas of the county, the individual characteristics of participants also were reflective of local students whom the university has historically had a greater challenge of reaching, This can be seen in the demographic table of participants who were randomized into the County and U-M program arms. Roughly two thirds of participating students identified as African American and 51% were from families with an annual income of less than $35,000.

Please download the printable version (Adobe PDF) for the full content of the policy brief