WHEN THE TOPIC of the achievement gap comes up, the conversation invariably veers to all the out-of-school factors facing low-income students and students of color that are correlated with poorer outcomes on academic performance, high school graduation, and other measures.
New research evidence among Boston high school students points to an out-of-school factor that can help close those gaps: a job.
Programs that provide summer jobs for lower-income high school students are often touted as a way to keep young people busy and out of trouble, while putting some badly needed money in their pockets. Research has shown a clear decrease in criminal activity among those in such programs. But the evidence has been less clear on the impact of youth employment on school-based outcomes.
A new study looking at the experience of Boston high school students taking part in a summer jobs program, however, shows clear benefits on graduation rates. The study, led by Alicia Sasser Modestino, the research director at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, found that students who took part in a summer jobs program were 4.4 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than those who did not land jobs. They also had a “small but significant improvement in overall GPA” in the year following the summer job.
A major factor behind the better outcomes appeared to be improved school attendance. Along with gaining other skills, summer employment inculcated a sense of responsibility to show up every day that carried over into the school year, said Modestino.
“I could entitle this paper, ‘90 percent of life is just showing up,’” she said of the study, published in the journal Education Finance & Policy.
The improvement in graduation rates from summer job participation is roughly equal to the gap seen in graduation rates between low-income students and their better-off peers, Modestino said.
The correlation between summer jobs and improved school attendance was particularly strong for groups of students who struggle the most, with the effect three times as strong for male students and those with a history of chronic absenteeism. “So it’s really making the difference for those young people who were on the margins,” said Modestino.
The research made use of the fact that summer jobs programs often have more applicants than available slots. Looking at Boston students who applied for summer jobs in 2015 through the anti-poverty organization ABCD, which used a lottery to randomly award positions, the study compared outcomes of those students who got a job through lottery with those who did not. That eliminated any bias that would come from comparing students who sought a job with those who didn’t.
Students in the summer jobs program worked a maximum of 25 hours per week, with an additional 20 hours spent receiving “job-readiness training,” which included evaluating their learning strengths and skills, work on “communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution,” and learning how to draft a resume and prepare for an interview.
Modestino said Boston has played a major role in showcasing the value of youth summer jobs nationally. Based on research showing the benefits of summer jobs, then-Mayor Marty Walsh boosted city funding for youth jobs in 2020 by $4.4 million, tapping the first round of federal COVID relief money.
“Mayor Walsh becomes Secretary of Labor Walsh and begins hanging out with his friend, Joe Biden,” said Modestino. In 2021, Biden began encouraging cities to use American Rescue Plan money to fund summer youth jobs.
The cost of the summer jobs was roughly $2,000 per participant, or about $2.4 million for the 1,200 students in the ABCD program. The graduation rate gain seen in the study would correspond with roughly 48 additional high school graduates. With a net benefit to taxpayers of roughly $127,000 for every high school graduate over their lifetime, those additional graduates would confer an added benefit of $6 million over their lifetimes.
That suggests the benefits of summer jobs programs outweigh the costs by 2 to 1 when just considering the impact of high school graduation. When factoring in reduced crime and other outcomes, Modestino said, the benefit-to-cost ratio is as large as 5 to 1.
“When you combine all these things together it’s such a no-brainer,” she said. “Making sure we can have enough funding to have all young people participate who want to is essential.”
NEW STORIES FROM COMMONWEALTH MAGAZINE
Scarsdale declared victor: The House declares Democrat Margaret Scarsdale of Pepperell the winner in her race against Republican Andrew Shepherd. A special House panel of two Democrats and one Republican unanimously concluded that “minor missteps” committed by local election officials would not have affected the race, which was won by seven votes. Read more.
Scramble in GOP: With the Massachusetts Republican Party in disarray after a series of November losses that caused it to shrink even more, many candidates are vying to take on current chair Jim Lyons for the job of chairman. Read more.
Encore record: Encore Boston Harbor posts record gambling revenues in December, with bets on slots only narrowly ahead of proceeds from table games. At most other casinos, the split is two-thirds slots, one-third table games. Read more.
College closures: Robert Hildreth, the philanthropist founder of Inversant, La Vida Scholars, and other nonprofits, calls for new measures to deal with the fallout of sudden college closures. Bay State College may be the latest. Read more.
STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE AROUND THE WEB
Salem police charge a man with drunken driving which, if he is convicted, would be his fifth offense. (Salem News)
South Coast health care providers are taking steps to be more responsive to health care issues and needs of LGBTQ patients. (Standard-Times)
After a jury trial, a male nurse from Lowell was acquitted of sexually assaulting a female resident at Knollwood Nursing Center in Worcester. (Telegram & Gazette)
The price paid for the median-priced home in Greater Boston in December fell slightly from the same month a year earlier, the first such drop in four years. (Boston Globe)
The cost of a new three-story elementary school in Amherst rises above the self-imposed cap of $100 million, prompting officials to look at ways to pare it back. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)
Harvard Medical School said it will no longer submit data to US News & World Report for its ranking of medical schools, a move that follows similar decisions by Harvard and Yale law schools. (Boston Globe)
The Haverhill Education Association pays $110,000 to the state for violating a judge’s contempt order in connection with an illegal strike. There may be more fines coming. (Eagle-Tribune)
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu isn’t showing much interest in an elected school committee, despite strong public support. (WBUR)
The Newton Fire Department obtains an emergency plug that can be used to shut off electric vehicles. (WBUR)
Brookline and Watertown have become the first two communities in the state to adopt new building codes discouraging the use of fossil fuels in new construction. (Boston Globe)
Brian Walshe will be charged with murder in the case of his missing wife, Ana Walshe of Cohasset, despite the fact that her body has not yet been found. (Boston Herald)
The state’s public defender agency and a state lawmaker want to bring more oversight to the process of the state Department of Children and Families removing children from their homes. (Boston Globe)
A Pepperell man who leads a neo-Nazi group and is already facing criminal charges in Boston is now facing civil charges from New Hampshire officials for allegedly hanging a racist banner over a public highway overpass. (Boston Globe)