Report: More Chicago seniors may be graduating — but only a fraction finish college

“Exploring Careers” books on a desk at Crispus Attucks High School, a public school in Indianapolis, Indiana. — April 2019 — Photo by Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat
A new report shows little progress in the percentage of Chicago Public Schools students who complete two- and four-year college degrees. (Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat)

Chicago has seen significant growth in its high school graduation and college enrollment rates in recent years — but little headway in the number of students who earn degrees. 

Slightly more than 40% of Chicago Public Schools students go to four-year colleges, and only half of them graduate. Completion rates were substantially lower for students attending two-year colleges.

In fact, a new report on the district’s student outcomes sounds an urgent alarm: If current outcomes do not budge, fewer than a third of today’s ninth graders in the district will earn a higher education credential within the coming decade. 

The report, by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research and the university’s To & Through Project, also spotlights growing racial and gender disparities in how long students stay in college as an increasingly diverse group of Chicago students makes its way to college campuses. 

In recent years, the school district has made important strides in preparing its students for college by a number of measures, from offering better access to college-credit classes to improving test scores. But higher education’s uneven push to serve the growing numbers of new college students with diverse backgrounds is a key factor in stagnant college graduation rates, said Jenny Nagaoka, one of the report’s authors. 

“I am not letting CPS off the hook completely,” Nagaoka said. Still, she added, “CPS has been thinking very intensely about how to prepare students for college for the past 10-plus years. Colleges have been thinking less about how to welcome some of these diverse students on campus.”

Efforts to better support first generation students and those from low income families, and move away from a sink-or-swim approach have been one of the overarching storylines in higher education. The coronavirus pandemic and racial reckoning of the past year have forced campuses to take an unflinching look at their performance. 

“This is a big moment for higher education,” Nagaoka said. “Change like this takes a really long time.” 

The report, “The Educational Attainment of Chicago Public School Students: 2019,” does not track participation in remedial college courses, which students take when they are not deemed ready for college-level classes.   

Chicago Public Schools’ graduation rate has steadily climbed from 60% in 2007 to more than 82% last year. More students are enrolling in college. Based on the most recent data from the report, 42% of high school graduates enrolled in a four-year college and about a fifth in a two-year institution. 

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Racial disparities persist: The rate at which Latino males enrolled in four-year institutions, for instance, was more than 10 percentage points lower than the district average in 2019. The rate at which students with disabilities enrolled in any college was 20 percentage points lower than the district average that year. 

The rate of college persistence — the portion of students who return to any campus for their second year — among those who enrolled in four-year institutions dipped slightly during the past decade, and disparities in that rate by race and gender widened. College persistence fell by 11 percentage points for Black male students. 

For the last six Chicago Public Schools cohorts, completion rates remained relatively steady, now at 50% for four-year schools and 23% for two-year colleges. Only 7% of the district’s graduates who enrolled in a two-year college after graduation went on to earn a bachelor’s degree. Overall, students in those institutions are much less likely to earn any degree than those who enroll in four-year colleges.

This is the first time the annual study looks at two-year college completion rates — the destination for almost half of Chicago Public Schools students who enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school. 

Nagaoka says these institutions serve an important role and merit more attention and resources to improve their outcomes.

“They are often overlooked or seen as a second-rate choice,” she said. 

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