School & District Management

Chicago’s High Achievers Found To Miss Out on College Options

Though more are taking tough courses, many fall short of selective schools
By Debra Viadero — April 23, 2009 4 min read
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A new study of how students in Chicago move from high school to work or college presents a classic good-news, bad-news scenario.

On the one hand, growing numbers of the district’s high school students are enrolling in high-level academic programs and courses, says the latest report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, at the University of Chicago. Yet not enough of those young people are taking full advantage of their expanded academic opportunities by applying to competitive colleges, the study finds.

“Even if you’re a smart kid, and you know you’ve done well in high school, you may not realize that a 4.0 GPA has a dollar value in terms of going to college,” said Jenny Nagaoka, a study co-author. The report, “From High School to the Future: Making Hard Work Pay Off,” was posted online April 22 by the consortium, a research organization that specializes in studies of the Chicago public schools.

College ‘Mismatch’

Fewer than half of Chicago high school students in academically advanced programs enroll in colleges that match their qualifications.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Consortium on Chicago School Research

Since 2004, consortium researchers have been studying successive waves of high school students in the nation’s third-largest district as they make the transition from high school to work or college.

In addition to statistical analyses, the research team conducted periodic interviews with 105 students between their junior year of high school and what would be, for many, the start of their sophomore year in college.

Like many school systems, the 408,000-student Chicago district in recent years has been pushing to raise the level of academic rigor in its high schools. Since the late 1990s, the district has opened five selective-enrollment high schools, created 12 small International Baccalaureate programs in neighborhood high schools, and doubled the percentage of students who have taken at least one Advanced Placement course, the study says. “The good news in this report is that the programs in the neighborhood schools are actually doing a very good job of preparing these students for college and giving them what they need to go to a four-year college and go on to more selective colleges,” Ms. Nagaoka said.

In fact, the study found, more than 90 percent of the academically advanced students in the Chicago school system have the qualifications to attend colleges that are at least “somewhat selective,” based on their grades, test scores, and high school coursework.

Yet 16 percent to 18 percent of that group had not enrolled in college a year after high school, and only about two-thirds enrolled in colleges that researchers deemed “somewhat selective.” Far fewer made it to “selective” or “very selective” higher education institutions.

Competing Demands

The reasons for the mismatch between students’ potential and their college destinations vary. One explanation is that students are often not aware of the financial-aid opportunities available to them at top-tier colleges and universites.

Also, the application process for private schools is more varied, and harder to navigate, than the more straightforward procedures for the Illinois state university system, Ms. Nagaoka said. “These families quite often doen’t have a college-going background,” she added. “And the neighborhood schools don’t have the capacity to ensure that students go on to school.”

Students also told the researchers that, because of the academic press of their coursework, they had little time to master the college-application process. Some resorted to skipping class in order to get their applications in on time.

“When [Chicago Public Schools] had only three selective-enrollment schools, only a small number of people really needed to have the expertise it takes to help top students enroll in top colleges,” the report concludes. “If CPS wants the hard work of these students, their families, and their teachers to pay off with college degrees, the capacity to guide these students to top colleges must be spread throughout the city.”

Monique D. Bond, a district spokeswoman, said officials are exploring ways to help top students find better college matches. Those efforts include a student-tracking system, created with the consortium’s help, that allows counselors to see which colleges students are interested in, or have heard from, and then counsel students who may be headed for a “mismatch.”

The district also plans to hold a college-application workshop this summer for International Baccalaureate students, who often complain of a lack of time to research and apply to schools because of the demands of their coursework.

The report is the fourth to draw on the data and interviews being gathered through the Chicago Postsecondary Transition Project.

At the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego earlier this month, the researchers offered a glimpse of preliminary findings from a fifth report in the series.

Not yet completed, that report focuses on the senior year of high school for students from a wide range of academic levels in the Chicago school system.

It will show that, while “senioritis” appears to be a common malady for many Chicago students, that’s not necessarily the case for the estimated 9 percent of students who are taking full courseloads of advanced academic classes in the last year of high school.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2009 edition of Education Week as Chicago Achievers Seen Prone to College Mismatch

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