Study reveals more graduates from Chicago Public Schools are enrolling in college

A larger proportion of students in the Chicago Public Schools have been enrolling in college in recent years, and a significantly higher number of students are now earning degrees or certificates from two-year colleges. These findings come from a study conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the To & Through Project, which tracks college enrollment. The study also projects that more Chicago students than ever will pursue and complete college in the next decade.

This study contradicts the national trend of declining college enrollment during the pandemic. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, nationwide enrollment in both two- and four-year colleges decreased by 0.6% from 2021 to 2022. Many young people across the country are questioning the value of higher education due to its high cost and the issue of student debt. However, Chicago Public Schools students are still recognizing the value of college.

Recent research has shown that a college education can lead to higher earning potential, improve access to high-quality housing, and contribute to better overall health. According to a review of literature by the federal government-led project Healthy People 2030, these benefits have been consistently found in various studies.

Jenny Nagaoka, one of the authors of the study and deputy director of the Consortium on School Research, emphasizes the importance of noting the increase in attainment among Chicago Public Schools students, especially considering the discouraging news about achievement in schools. She explains that despite the concerns about the cost and payoff of higher education, students in Chicago Public Schools still see its value.

The study utilized a measure known as the Post-Secondary Attainment Index (PAI) to project college enrollment and completion rates based on current high school graduation rates and college enrollment and completion rates. It should be noted that the graduation rates calculated by the researchers differ slightly from those reported by the district. The study found an 84% graduation rate for 2022, compared to the 82.9% reported by CPS. The PAI is not meant to be a prediction but rather serves as a starting point for understanding and improving current patterns in college attainment.

According to this year’s PAI, if current graduation, enrollment, and completion rates in Chicago Public Schools remain the same over the next decade, it is projected that 30 out of 100 current ninth graders will earn a college credential by the age of 25. This represents a 2.4 percentage point increase compared to the previous year and is the highest rate recorded since the calculation of the index began in 2013 when it was 23%.

Chicago’s ninth graders in the current year were in middle school when the pandemic forced the closure of school buildings. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the researchers are cautiously optimistic that the positive trends in college enrollment and completion among Chicago Public Schools students will continue.

While the overall findings of the study are encouraging, it also reveals significant racial disparities within the data. For instance, the PAI predicts that 66% of Asian American women will earn a college credential over the next decade, while only 13.6% of Black men are projected to do the same. Addressing and closing these racial disparities is acknowledged as an area that requires further work by Chief Education Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova.

The research also examined college enrollment and completion data from 2022 and 2021, respectively. Some notable findings include:

  • 60.8% of CPS students who graduated in 2022 enrolled in two-year or four-year colleges immediately, a 1.5 percentage point increase compared to the previous class.
  • Racial disparities are evident in the college enrollment rates upon graduation in 2022. While nearly 80% of white women immediately enrolled in college, only 45% of Black male students did the same.
  • Just over 53% of English learners pursued college immediately after graduating in 2021, compared to 68% of former English learners.
  • For the class of 2015, around 56% of students who immediately enrolled in a four-year college and approximately one-third of students who immediately enrolled in a two-year college ultimately earned a bachelor’s or associate degree or a certificate by 2021.
  • Among students who didn’t immediately enroll in college in 2015, about 3% earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, and another 5% completed an associate degree or certificate. While these rates are increasing, they are 1.7 percentage points lower than the similar completion rates for the class of 2009.
  • The percentage of students who earned a college credential after enrolling in four-year schools decreased by 0.6% between the graduating classes of 2014 and 2015.

Chkoumbova attributes the positive trends to various efforts in district schools to keep students engaged and prepared for their futures. These efforts include the introduction of more career and technical education programs, as well as dual-credit programs. The district’s approach to discipline, which focuses on restorative practices rather than suspensions, has also contributed to better student outcomes.

Additionally, the Chicago Public Schools have implemented several programs aimed at supporting students and encouraging their interest in college. One such program, the Direct Admissions Initiative, informs seniors whether they can gain admission to a select list of colleges. Another program provides post-graduation support and mentorship to students. The district is continuously working on closing racial disparities and recognizes the need for partnerships to provide mentorship and guidance to high school students, especially those from marginalized communities.

The study highlights the significant increase in the two-year college completion rate for the class of 2015 graduates. This increase aligns with the implementation of Chicago’s STAR Scholarship, which offers free tuition to City Colleges for CPS students with at least a 3.0 GPA upon high school graduation. The scholarship was announced in the fall of 2014 by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Chicago’s college enrollment rates surpass those of high-poverty schools nationwide by approximately 11 percentage points. This is attributed, in part, to the efforts of school counselors, nonprofit organizations, and others who work in schools to ensure that students are aware of their college options. Chicago Public Schools requires students to create a post-secondary plan as a graduation requirement, which prompts students to have conversations about their future plans.

In the class of 2022, 97% of seniors submitted a post-secondary plan, indicating that students are actively considering their options beyond high school.

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