Featured Image
Photo/Ted Eytan (Source)

D.C. high school alumni reflections on their early career outcomes

November 10, 2021
  • Emilia Calma

Despite the considerable number of unfilled jobs coming to the Washington region every year, young D.C. residents, particularly young people of color, do not have access to career pathways designed to support them from education to secure employment. We believe that employers have uniquely powerful levers to influence racial equity through talent development, starting with how they engage with the education and workforce systems and including their own talent acquisition and development practices. Our vision is that provided with the right infrastructure and support, employers will be able to hire more DC residents into the region’s many good jobs as a business decision advanced by their Human Resources departments—not only out of a sense of corporate social responsibility.

This publication is the second of two in partnership with the Federal City Council and CityWorks DC that will explore the creation of a local talent pipeline in the District of Columbia that prepares youth for high-wage, high-demand jobs in the region by enabling District employers to actively engage in the education and training of the District’s youth. 

Read the first publication, The case for creating a local talent pipeline in the District of Columbia.


Data exist on D.C.’s public and public charter school students’ high school graduation rates and student’s enrollment in postsecondary education six months after graduation. But beyond that six-month mark, in terms of publicly available data the picture goes dark: there is very little qualitative or quantitative information on early career outcomes for the District’s young adults.[1] Detailed information on early career outcomes for former D.C. students is critical for policymakers, school officials, and employers to better design programs and understand what supports and services are necessary to help young adults succeed.

A recent survey asked a group of young adults that went to high school in D.C. about their early career outcomes, providing information that could be used as a starting point toward gathering more information on how D.C.’s high school students fare in their early careers. This survey, conducted by CityWorks DC and Bain & Company, reached 1,199 D.C. alumni of public, public charter schools, and adult charter schools.

Early career outcomes refer to information about the employment, income, and educational attainment (including degrees, certificates, and credentials) of D.C.’s former public and public charter school students and graduates. Ideally, information on early career outcomes would be available for D.C.’s young adults for their first professional experiences in addition to their twenties and thirties as they progress in their careers.

Career assets are the set of tools, skills, experiences, and competencies that an individual has acquired or has access to, that help them successfully navigate the workforce. Activities that help individuals acquire career assets include a variety of skill-building opportunities such as volunteer positions, work experience, apprenticeships, internships, exposure to career options, career counseling, mentorship, and postsecondary planning. In this brief, students were considered to have acquired career assets if they participated in multiple activities that had a statistically significant impact on outcomes for their particular educational pathway.

While alumni who completed a postsecondary program had better early career outcomes in terms of employment and average earnings than alumni with high school credentials alone, there is a wide range of incomes for all degree levels. Variation in incomes is highly correlated to engagement in career assets. Across all degree types, alumni who acquired career assets[2] through activities and experiences including  work-based learning like internships and apprenticeships, career exposure, career counseling, and employer connections, had significantly better outcomes in terms of annual wages and feelings of financial stability, job fulfillment, and optimism about the future.

Population surveyed

CityWorks DC and Bain & Company[3] conducted a survey of 1,199 D.C. public, public charter, and adult charter school alumni aged 19 to 33.[4] Respondents were predominantly young adults aged 24 to 28 who graduated high school between 2010 to 2015 (62 percent of respondents).[5] In addition, 95 percent of the alumni sampled were high school graduates, approximately 60 percent had completed a postsecondary program (bachelor’s, associate’s, credential, or certificate), approximately 12 percent went straight from high school to the workforce, and around 25 percent of respondents were currently enrolled in an apprenticeship, degree program, or credential.

The alumni were 75 percent Black and 56 percent female, similar to D.C. public and public charter high school demographics.[6] Additionally, alumni surveyed came from a variety of economic backgrounds, and at the time of survey, 46 percent had one or more dependents.

The survey tracked several data points for early career outcomes including full-time and part-time employment, education status, employed industry and role, qualifications for that role, and post-tax yearly income. Additionally, the survey asked questions on multiple qualitative aspects of the alumni’s early career experiences, including self-reported financial stability, job fulfillment, and optimism about the future.

Respondents were asked their perceptions of success, financial stability, and future outlook

Hearing directly from young adults in the District about their experiences can provide a plethora of information about current job opportunities, what needs to be done in schools to prepare youth for the job market, and what wages are needed for residents to thrive and be able to live in the District.

Survey respondents were asked about their perceptions of financial stability, job fulfillment, and future outlook. On the topic of financial stability, alumni were asked whether they were comfortable with their current financial situation, whether they had issues paying their rent or mortgage on time, and whether they could cover an unexpected $400 bill. Alumni making more than $36,000 per year post-tax were more likely to report feeling more financially stable, making $36,000 the threshold for perceived financial stability in this analysis.[7]

Alumni were also asked whether they were proud of their job, felt motivated to work, if their personal values aligned with their employers, and whether they felt safe, included, and happy at their job. In addition, alumni self-reported whether they had opportunities to learn and develop at their job. Key findings from the survey are below.

Bachelor’s degree holders are more likely to be employed and earn higher incomes, but incomes varied significantly across all groups

Among survey respondents, alumni with bachelor’s degrees were more likely to be employed than alumni who had not completed a bachelor’s degree. 89 percent of alumni with bachelor’s degrees reported being employed (as compared to 76 percent of alumni without a bachelor’s degree), with the most common industries including education, business, and engineering. Of unemployed alumni (across all degree types), approximately a third of respondents reported being let go because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of unemployed alumni were currently enrolled in a post-secondary degree or training program.

On average, alumni with bachelor’s degrees earned more than other groups, but every group of alumni, at all levels of educational attainment, earned a wide range of incomes. The majority of alumni with a bachelor’s degree earned between $30,000 and $60,000 post-tax, with an average post-tax income of $39,000 (the equivalent of $21/hour or $44,000 per year pre-tax). In comparison, alumni with associate’s degrees or credentials earned an average of $32,000 post-tax, and those who went straight to work earned an average post-tax income of $28,000.[8]

Part of the issue is degree requirements: of the top-high demand, high-wage jobs in D.C., over 60 percent required a bachelor’s degree.[9] However, only an estimated 14 percent of D.C.’s high school students completed a postsecondary degree within six years of high school graduation, limiting employment options.[10] In addition to postsecondary degree requirements, employers often require multiple years of job experience and certifications, requirements that create additional barriers for District residents hoping to attain high paying jobs.

Career assets significantly positively affected alumni earnings and employment for all degree types

Young adults who acquired career assets through activities and experiences such as work-based learning (i.e. internships and apprenticeships), career exposure, career counseling, and employer connections, had, on average, improved outcomes. This held true for all education levels, but particularly for alumni with associate’s degrees and certificates. There were some characteristics of the programs and experiences that alumni undertook that statistically significantly improved their outcomes. These program characteristics that improved outcomes for alumni included being rigorous, having connections to employers, work experience, career exposure, and career counseling. Additionally, strong academic performance, majors aligned with career choice, and a major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) all correlated with improved outcomes.[11]

Alumni who completed associate’s degree and certification programs did not on average make as much as students who had bachelor’s degrees ($32,000 post-tax per year on average and $39,000 post-tax per year on average, respectively). However, students with associate’s degrees and certifications who acquired career assets (25 percent of respondents) had earnings outcomes on par with alumni who had bachelor’s degrees. Alumni with associate’s degrees and certifications who acquired career assets made 64 percent more on average ($25,000 post-tax per year) than their peers who did not acquire career assets ($41,000 post-tax per year). While acquiring career assets was particularly effective for alumni with associate’s degrees and certifications, acquiring career assets improved outcomes for all students by approximately 10 percent (including students with bachelor’s degrees, and students with no postsecondary education).[12]

Career assets are particularly important for low-income and first generation students. First generation graduates are less likely to get jobs post-college than their better-coached and -connected classmates. In addition, they are more likely than their peers to accept job offers more quickly, make less money, and take jobs for which they are overqualified (including jobs that do not require a degree). In large part, this is because first generation students are more likely to commute or work full-time while in college, and are thus less likely to have completed internships, studied abroad, or taken advantage of career counseling services, all of which have been shown to improve job prospects. For example, graduates who had internships were 90 percent more likely to get job offers than graduates who didn’t.[13]

Early career outcomes must be tracked

Understanding early career outcomes for the District’s young adults can illuminate what kinds of jobs and incomes D.C. public school students can expect to receive, show policy makers what barriers exist in the current labor market, expose what experiences create competitive advantages, and reveal what practices need to be changed or enhanced to help students succeed in their early careers. Unfortunately, there are currently few ways in which we can track early career outcomes, and data is often limited to a small share of students.

Results from this survey revealed that acquiring career assets in high school[14] and postsecondary significantly and positively improved early career outcomes for District alumni. Students who acquired career assets through opportunities and experiences such as apprenticeships, internships, exposure to career options, mentorship, and other services had higher incomes on average than their peers without such assets, and were more likely to report feeling financially stable, fulfilled in their career, and optimistic about the future. Survey data reveal several opportunities to improve opportunities for District youth, including increasing access to and robustness of programs and activities that let students acquire career assets at all levels of education. As career assets were shown to boost average earnings by up to 64 percent, educational institutions and training programs should consider how best to integrate career exposure and work-based learning into their programs.

Gathering data directly from young adults adds an important dimension in understanding early career outcomes, especially regarding perceptions of financial stability, optimism, and success. This data can be seen as a starting point as the District looks to gather more information about the early career outcomes of District youth. While useful, this survey captured a small percentage of D.C.’s former public school students. In the future, creating a comprehensive tracking system to monitor degrees, credentials, and certificates earned, occupation, income, employment status, and other metrics, can be used to monitor progress, inform practices and programming, as well as illuminate inequities.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to clarify that it is publicly-available data that is largely unavailable after 6 months post-graduation.


Emilia Calma

Director of Policy & Research
D.C. Policy Center

Emilia is the Director of Policy & Research at the D.C. Policy Center. Her research focuses on racial equity, social policy, and workforce issues in the District of Columbia. Emilia has authored reports on many topics including out-of-school-time program capacity, D.C.’s criminal justice system, and the geography of environmental hazards. In addition, Emilia has worked at Georgetown University’s Policy Innovation Lab and at the Montgomery County Council.

Emilia holds a Bachelor of Arts from Carleton College and Master of Public Policy from Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

You can reach Emilia at emilia@dcpolicycenter.org.


[1] What information we have about young adults in the District is often limited to residents who were born in the District and currently live here as young adults–leaving out individuals who moved into the District in their childhood and young adults who moved outside of the District after high school.

Measuring early career outcomes in D.C., to be released by D.C. Policy Center on November 17, 2021.

[2] In the survey, alumni reported on a variety of career assets including employer connections, career counseling, alignment of course material with careers, and work based learning. Respondents engaged in career assets participated in at least one career asset activity mentioned in the survey.

[3] Bain & Company is a top management consulting firm. They advise leaders on strategy, marketing, organization, operations, IT and M&A, across all industries. More information can be found at https://www.bain.com/

CityWorks is an initiative of CityBridge DC that works to secure meaningful work that can support a family and build personal wealth for young people who grew up in D.C., and drive economic growth in the region. More information can be found at https://cityworksdc.org/

[4] The majority (67 percent) of respondents lived in the District at the time of survey with all 8 D.C. wards represented. Wards 8 and 7 had the highest percentages of survey respondents (24 and 22 percent, respectively), while Wards 2 and 3 had the least survey respondents (2 and 4 percent, respectively). These percentages were very similar to where respondents attended high school.

[5] Additionally, Bain conducted over 30 interviews with LEAs (Local Education Agencies), nonprofits, government agencies, higher education, and research leaders, as well as three 90-minute focus groups with 12 alumni aged 21 to 28.

[6] Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) 2019-2020 Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, available at https://osse.dc.gov/

[7] Alumni were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how financially stable they felt. When incomes reached $36,000 or above, post-tax, the average rating of feeling financially secure was at least 4 out of 5.

[8] This average falls below the District’s MIT-determined living wage of approximately $41,000 with no dependents, or $80,000 with one dependent (pre-tax). Moreover, this is approximately half the average income of young adults who move to the District from other states ($58,548). Unlike other wage estimates in this brief, this figure is an annual salary before tax.

ACS 5-year estimates 2015-2019

[9] http://[9] https://www.dcnetworks.org/admin/gsipub/htmlarea/Uploads/High-Demand-High-Wage-Publication-OLMRI.pdf

[10] This estimate is based on data from the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) for students who began ninth grade in 2014-15 and were in the graduating high school class cohort of 2017-18. https://www.dcpolicycenter.org/publications/student-transition-college-career/

[11] All program characteristics were self-reported by alumni.

[12] Access to career assets improved average incomes of bachelor’s degree holders by 16 percent. For alumni who had not completed a postsecondary degree, access to career assets (in high school) increased the average income earned by 28 percent.

[13] https://hechingerreport.org/college-degree-doesnt-pay-off-as-well-for-first-generation-grads/

[14] To help create more opportunities for D.C. high school students, the District has expanded the number of National Academy Foundation (NAF) career academies in D.C. public and public charter schools by 78 percent (27 academies to 48). NAF academies offer career-focused learning opportunities including academic support, industry guest speakers, mentoring opportunities, and summer internships across multiple sectors. Common sectors include finance, information technology, health sciences, and engineering. In addition, D.C. public schools now mail to all students a Guide to Graduation, Career, and College: an individualized document that includes information on whether students are on track to graduate, colleges in the area that are likely a good fit, and careers of interest and their earning potential.