New studies on college enrollment and completion in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) show signs of progress. But there’s work yet to do to ensure Chicago’s high school graduates complete college at high rates, and to ease the path from junior college to a four-year bachelor’s degree. While some of that work involves boosting academic achievement, we can’t overlook the crisis in funding for Illinois higher education as a factor, too.
First, the good news. Between 2006 and 2015, the share of each graduating class that enrolled in either a two- or four-year college right away increased from 50 percent in 2006 to 63 percent in 2015. That’s important because national data show high school graduates who start college right away are more likely to complete. Also, students with disabilities in the class of 2015 were much more likely to enroll in college in 2015 than those who graduated in 2006. This held true regardless of disability type.
Overall, in 2015, 44 percent of CPS graduates enrolled in four-year colleges, equaling their peers in the rest of the nation. “After implementing district-wide initiatives designed to support students, our graduates are enrolling in four-year colleges at the same rate of their peers across the country—an achievement that seemed nearly impossible just a few short years ago,” noted CPS Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool and Chief Education Office Janice Jackson, in a statement.
Annually since 2006, the Consortium on Chicago School projects the share of high school freshmen expected to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation. For last year’s freshmen, that amounts to 18 percent, same as the previous year. But a decade ago, only 11 percent of freshmen were expected to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Moreover, researchers remain hopeful the overall upward trend will resume. “Increasing college enrollment, taken together with recent increases in CPS students’ Freshman OnTrack rates, ACT scores, and high school GPAs, suggests the number of CPS graduates attaining a bachelor’s degree will rise over time.”
No Easy Journey from College Entrance to Completion
The journey from college enrollment to college completion still holds many pitfalls. This year, for the first time, the Consortium on Chicago School research was able to track student transfer patterns between two- and four-year colleges. In 2015, about a quarter of CPS graduates who originally enrolled in four-year colleges dropped back to junior college within four years of completing high school, while only 16 percent of those who first enrolled in junior college went on to four-year schools.
This raises a key question: How many CPS graduates are leaving high school academically unprepared to earn a bachelor’s degree, and only discovering the hard truth when they get to college? That’s a story we’ve heard all too frequently. While the district has made huge strides in keeping high schoolers engaged and on track, and in offering rigorous academic opportunities like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, there’s still work to do to ensure all students are challenged to their full academic potential.
While academic preparation remains an issue in college completion for CPS graduates, finances are likely to play a role, too. To what extent might money problems be forcing students who could earn a bachelor’s degree to scale their ambitions back to a cheaper, two-year school? The data don’t tell us the answers.
But Education Post network member Kyle Westbrook recently noted that Illinois colleges and universities—both two- and four-year—saw African-American enrollment drop 25 percent between 2011 and 2015. In 2016, Illinois left nearly half its low-income college students—160,000 or so—without funds from the Monetary Award Program, the state’s rough equivalent of a federal Pell Grant.
What does the future hold for college attainment among Chicago’s high school graduates? Chicago Public Schools, with help from partners like the Network for College Success and the To and Through Project, is continuing to work on strengthening teaching, learning and college preparation and advising in Chicago’s public high schools. But whether Illinois’ policymakers have the political will to invest in our state’s low-income and first-generation college students remains an open question.