Reaching the Finish Line

The percentage of Chicago ninth-graders who will earn a bachelor's degree within 10 years has doubled, due to increased high school graduation and college enrollment rates. But the base was quite low.

December 9, 2014

Less than one in six high school freshmen in Chicago will earn a bachelor's degree by the age of 25. It may not be an impressive statistic, but it's a marked improvement from what it was eight years ago.

About 14 percent of ninth-graders in Chicago Public Schools will earn a four-year college degree within 10 years of starting high school, according to a new report from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR).

In 2006, the Consortium reported that just eight out of every 100 ninth-graders in Chicago’s public schools would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s. The new report is an update to see how students fare now, after the low 2006 figures spurred commitments to improve the college success of Chicago students.

The 2006 report attracted considerable attention nationally for the way it highlighted the challenges faced by a large urban school school district -- the kind of school district that will be crucial to efforts to get more people into higher education and earning degrees.

The authors of the report attribute the increase from 8 percent to 14 percent to a significant jump in high school graduation rates and an improvement in college enrollment – not an increase in college completion rates. The six-year bachelor’s-degree completion rate for Chicago students ticked up just slightly.

The increase means that out of the roughly 28,000 ninth-graders in Chicago Public Schools, almost 1,700 more students will go on to earn a college degree.

The report doesn’t track a single cohort of students. Instead, the authors created a degree attainment index by combing the most recent high school graduation, college enrollment and college graduation rates. Using that same method, the report finds a national degree attainment index of 18 percent, measuring all public high school graduates who enroll at a college and earn a degree with six years.

The authors also note that while Chicago’s rate may seem low, particularly when considering that 75 percent of ninth-graders say they intend to earn a degree, the district’s rate is on par with or higher than other major metropolitan school districts.

Using data from a study released last month on New York City students’ rates of high school and degree completion, the authors found a degree attainment index of 11 percent. Baltimore’s rate is 4 percent, based on data from a report published last year. Other districts, including Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Houston, also have published rates between 9 and 13 percent, although based on varying time periods and methods of measuring.

The consortium hopes to start updating the Chicago index on an annual basis, and is also working on a similar measure of community college completion.

Breaking Down the Index

The graduation rate at Chicago's public high schools increased from 58 percent in 2006 to 73 percent in 2014. Graduation rates improved for students across all genders, races and income levels. 

 The rate of students who enrolled in a four-year college directly after high school rose from 33 percent in 2006 to 40 percent in 2013.

Of those students who enrolled in a four-year college in 2006, 49 percent went on to earn a degree within six years, up from 47 percent three years earlier.

The report also includes an adjusted degree attainment index to measure those students, such as community college attendees, who don’t enroll in a four-year college directly after high school but still earn a bachelor’s degree within the 10-year time period. Including those students, the index increases from 14 percent to 17 percent. 

The degree attainment index varies among demographic groups, ranging from a low of 6 percent for African-American men to 44 percent for Asian-American women.

Emphasis on Rigor

When people hear that more students are graduating from college, they often ask whether that’s just because students are being passed through high school, said Jenny Nagaoka, deputy director of the consortium and a co-author of the report.

But the report also found positive news in slight increases in average grade-point averages and ACT scores. An additional 5,500 Chicago public school students took the ACT, and the average score increased by almost one point, from 17.6 in 2006 to 18.4 in 2013.  

That suggests that increased graduation rates aren’t incompatible with quality learning, Nagaoka said. But there’s still a long way to go in terms of college preparation.

Less than one-third of 2013 graduates had cumulative high school GPAs greater than 3.0, which gives them a 50 percent chance of graduating college within six years, according to the study. “We’re not seeing nearly enough kids with high enough ACT scores and GPAs to give them the probability of college success,” she said.

High school graduation rates and college enrollment rates were the first place people looked to improve students outcomes, said Julie Ajinkya, director of community partnerships at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Now, there’s an emerging focus on what colleges can do to help students graduate, she said.

“There was a lot of effort at first on access to higher education, but not on making sure that we actually follow up with students to see that they’re graduating,” she said. “That’s a more recent development.”

There’s plenty of work to do on that front, as well, Nagaoka said.

Thirty-seven percent of four-year college enrollees attended institutions with graduation rates below 50 percent. And seven of the top 10 colleges attended by Chicago Public School graduates have underrepresented minority graduation rates below 50 percent.

Colleges and universities say that students come to them unprepared or that there are a lot of factors beyond their control, such as finances or home life, that influence a student’s ability to succeed, Nagaoka said.

“These are the same exact things that high school principals said years ago,” she said. “And yet we’ve see these remarkable increases in high school graduation rates.”



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