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Press Release

New Study Finds that for Every Seven More Adults in a Neighborhood, One Fewer Young Person Leaves School

Center for Promise researchers at Boston University releases first of its kind study on how a community’s adult-to-youth ratio affects high school graduation rates New map by Community Commons provides public access to adult-to-youth ratios by zip code

Boston, MA and Washington, D.C. (Oct. 11, 2016) – The more adults in a community, the more young people stay on a path toward academic success, regardless of other factors that influence a young person’s educational trajectory, according to new research released today by the Center for Promise, the research institute of America’s Promise Alliance.

The brief – Who’s Minding the Neighborhood? The Role of Adult Capacity in Keeping Young People on a Path to Graduation – supports in part the GradNation campaign to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent by 2020.

While there has been a steady improvement in the overall rate of youth leaving school, from a high of 14 percent in 1970 down to 6 percent in 2010, researchers have long noted substantial variation by state, city and neighborhood. Using Decennial Census data (1970-2010), Center for Promise researchers looked into reasons for the variation.

Focused solely on metropolitan areas throughout the United States, researchers examined the ratio of adults (age 25+) to school-aged youth (age 6 to 17) in a zip code to understand whether the number of adults affects the “status dropout rate” or the number of young people who leave school before graduating. The researchers use a community’s adult-to-youth ratio as a proxy for determining a community’s “adult capacity.”

While some researchers have studied adult-to-youth ratios in the United States, none have looked at the implications of these ratios on education.

“Young people need an array of social supports to get on and stay on a positive educational course. Without a sufficient number of adults in a community, young people might not have access to these supports,” said Dr. Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise and lead author of the brief. “Supportive relationships – with mentors, teachers, coaches, faith leaders, other school and nonprofit staff – constitute a web of support that can keep young people engaged in school and connected to their communities.”

Key Findings

  • The adult capacity in a community is related to a decrease in the rate of youth leaving school. A 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio results in a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people leaving school. In real-world terms, this result means that for every seven more adults in the neighborhood, one fewer young person leaves school.
  • Race matters, specifically in predominantly black or African-American communities, in amplifying this effect. The effect of an adult-to-youth ratio is amplified in neighborhoods that are comprised mostly of black or African-American residents; with a 30 percent greater effect on youth leaving school compared to an all-White neighborhood. Since the average black resident lives in a neighborhood that is approximately two-thirds black in 11 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country, the potential benefits of this amplified effect cannot be underestimated.
  • Income matters in increasing the effect of adult capacity. The adult-to-youth ratio effect is amplified in higher-income communities. The analysis shows that doubling a neighborhood’s mean income increases the effect size of the ratio by 12 percent. This finding indicates that adults need institutional, social and economic resources – supported by income – to most effectively help young people.
  • A higher level of educational attainment among adults in the community did not have a significant effect. Therefore, all adults, regardless of their educational attainment, can play a role in keeping young people on a path to graduation.

“While the U.S. high school graduation rate continues to climb, there are still nearly 700,000 16-to-19 year olds who are not in school and who do not have a high school diploma,” added Dr. Zaff. “We must continue to examine why young people leave high school without graduating, how communities and the systems that surround them can improve young people’s prospects for graduation, and the ways that adults can support young people’s success beyond graduation. Not doing so could have enormous, negative economic and social impacts.”

What’s Happening in Your Neighborhood?

To find the adult-to-youth ratio in your neighborhood, visit the Community Commons website at Community Commons—a nonprofit collaboration powered by the Institute for People, Place and Possibility, the Center for Applied Research and Environmental Systems, and Community Initiatives — provides thousands of meaningful data layers that allow mapping and reporting capabilities for the exploration of community health.

Authors & Sponsors

The research brief was produced by the Center for Promise. Dr. Zaff was lead author and received support from Thomas Malone, a doctoral student in the public policy program at the University of Southern California. The research was funded by the Ford Foundation.

For More Information

To access the full brief and a longer working paper on the topic, visit the following link  To learn more about what young people say about the power of relationships, read the Center for Promise report Don’t Quit on Me.

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About the Center for Promise

The Center for Promise is the applied research institute for America’s Promise Alliance, housed at the Boston University School of Education and dedicated to understanding what young people need to thrive and how to create the conditions of success for all young people.

About America’s Promise Alliance

America’s Promise Alliance is the nation’s largest network dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth. Together with more than 400 national organizations and thousands of community leaders, America’s Promise focuses the nation’s attention on young people’s lives and voices, leads bold campaigns to expand opportunity, conducts groundbreaking research on what young people need to thrive, and accelerates the adoption of strategies that help young people succeed. GradNation, its signature campaign, mobilizes Americans to increase the nation’s high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.