Caniyah Robinson and her best friend, Tiffany Tobin, both 18, got their first sweet taste of celebrity as sophomores in high school. Tiffany was already an eminent personality at Brooklyn’s Freedom Academy when Caniyah transferred in. Together, their stars shot up. “Everybody wanted to talk to us,” says Caniyah. “There’s a power of being known – it kind of takes your head to another place.”

Wherever that place was, it’s clear that it wasn’t through the doors of a classroom: “Mostly we ran the halls, talked to boys, bothered the principal,” says Tiffany. Like all good celebrities, they mastered the art of the dramatic entrance (“usually around lunch time”), and they always left their public wanting more – by the time she was a junior, says Caniyah, “I was going to school maybe once or twice a month, if I knew I had something cute to wear.”

It wasn’t until what should have been their senior year, after logging thousands of hours in front of the TV and several F’s on their transcripts – far from any hope of graduation – that it occurred to Caniyah and Tiffany that what was cute at 17 might not be so charming ten years down the road. “We both looked in the mirror and we didn’t like what we saw,” Tiffany recalled recently. “What can you do with your life if you don’t have a high school diploma?”

It’s a good question – one faced by a cohort of young people fast growing across the country, and even faster in New York. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the city estimates that somewhere close to 160,000 – or nearly one in six – New Yorkers between the ages of 16 and 21 are neither in school nor employed in a legal job. Most of them started out poor, and their future economic prospects are grim: According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, 54 percent of young adults without diplomas were jobless during an average month in 2008, and 40 percent were jobless for an entire year.

Kids drop or fall out of the mainstream education system for a long list of reasons – most commonly because they need to work, have a baby, or are caring for another family member, according to the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). Whatever the back story, it’s in everyone’s best interest to help out-of-school youth get educated and employed. When researchers at the Community Service Society did the math, they found that each New Yorker who doesn’t finish high school costs the city treasury nearly $135,000 more than he pays in taxes, for expenses such as incarceration or shelter. Those with just a high school degree pay an average of $190,000 more into city coffers than is expended on their behalf – making each high school diploma or GED worth a grand total of $325,000 to the city.

That’s why a portion of money from the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) – the country’s main funding stream for job training services – is designated for programs aimed at getting so-called “disconnected youth” back into school or the labor market. This year, New York City is in line to receive nearly $14 million in WIA funding for out-of-school youth programs.

It’s a big chunk of cash, and one that both city officials and youth advocates agree must be used strategically, since there isn’t likely to be a great deal more coming down the road. That’s where the consensus ends. When the DYCD put out a call last month for grant applications, detailing just what kinds of programs will be eligible for the new WIA funds, the Request for Proposals was met with dismay by a vocal group of advocates. They say the new programming requirements are misguided, overly prescriptive in their staffing and structural demands, and – most importantly – they force service providers to cherry-pick their participants, leaving the young people with the greatest needs behind.

Toward a job, or a career?

The most traditional workforce programs provide straightforward vocational training – say, an auto mechanics certification course. But many of the young people who are theoretically eligible for WIA-funded programs are also desperately deficient in basic educational skills. (In NYC, the majority of 16-21-year-olds without a high school diploma read at somewhere between a 4th and 8th grade level.) And so WIA’s youth money can also be used to fund programs that improve their participants’ math and literacy skills, teach GED preparation classes or usher young people into college.

Once the federal money is doled out, it’s up to local Workforce Investment Boards and municipalities to decide the balance between job training and education programs in their jurisdictions, choosing which particular strings will be attached to each round of cash. Most administrators find themselves trying to stretch limited resources across a large and needy population, and that’s where, in New York City, a philosophical rift has opened wide: Should service providers spend more time and money on getting young people immediate access to the workforce, or on helping them pursue educational opportunities that might increase their range of options for the future?

Lazar Treschan, director of youth policy for the Community Service Society of New York, frames the question like this: “Do we want to say that we’re getting young people into jobs, or that we’re preparing them for careers?” Treschan serves as the co-chair of the Campaign for Tomorrow’s Workforce, an advocacy coalition that has spent the past two years pushing the city to move away from a jobs-first approach to out-of-school youth programming.