The Educational Attainment of Chicago Public Schools Students: A Focus on Four-Year College Degrees

Pop quiz: If you’re a Chicago ninth grader, what are the chances you’ll have earned a four-year college degree ten years from now? This research brief from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR), claims it’s just 14 percent. Sounds grim until you do a little math: At present, the national high school graduation rate is 81 percent; four-year college enrollment is 38 percent, while the six-year graduation rate among those enrollees is 59 percent. Multiply those figures together and you get an 18 percent national “degree attainment index” (a figure that sounds curiously low given that one-third of Americans ages 25 to 29 have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics). Regardless of how you keep score, Chicago has improved markedly since CCSR first published its index in 2006. High school graduation rates have jumped from 53 percent to 73 percent, and a higher percentage of grads are enrolling in four-year colleges (college completion rates have not changed significantly). Meanwhile there has been a slight increase in the grade point average and ACT scores of CPS students, even though more than 5,000 additional students took the exam compared to eight years ago—implying that the improved high school graduation rate cannot be attributed to reduced rigor or a lower bar. Still, with 75 percent of CPS high school students reporting they want to obtain a four-year degree, while only one in six are projected to reach that goal, there’s a yawning gap between students’ aspirations and their accomplishments. Yet there’s significant upside in the data: One in four Chicago students with GPAs above 3.5 do not enroll in a four-year college after graduating, suggesting there’s more low-hanging, college-ready fruit to be harvested. After that, things quickly get thornier, and the hope of college even for 75 percent seems unrealistically sunny. Almost a third of graduates leave Chicago schools with a GPA of less than 2.0, “which means they are not showing the skills they need for success in either college or the workforce,” the authors note. This sobering data point alone makes the report’s singular focus on college seem a bit tone-deaf. One of the authors’ takeaways is that “students and their families need guidance in selecting a college where the student is likely to graduate.” Perhaps, but even more of them may need first-rate CTE programs and preparation for a life of economic self-sufficiency that does not include college.

SOURCE: Kaleen Healey, Jenny Nagaoka, and Valerie Michelman, “The Educational Attainment of Chicago Public Schools Students: A Focus on Four-Year College Degrees,” the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (December 2014).

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.