Major College-Going Gaps Found in Chicago

By Lynn Olson — April 20, 2006 5 min read

While most of Chicago’s high school seniors hope to attend college, the school system has a long way to go to make that vision a reality, according to a new report that is among the first to track the post-high-school experiences of graduates from a major urban district on a broad scale.

“From High School to the Future,” released last week by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, presents the first results from a multiyear project that is following the postsecondary experiences of graduates of the Chicago public school system and analyzing the relationships between high school preparation, college choices, and higher education outcomes.

Read the report, “From High School to the Future: A First Look at Chicago Public School Graduates’ College Enrollment, College Preparation, and Graduation From Four-Year Colleges,” April 2006, available from the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The researchers found that grades in core classes matter more than scores on the ACT college-admissions test in predicting whether students enroll in and succeed in college, and that females are far more likely than their male peers to earn high grades.

The authors also conclude that where students went to high school and which college they enrolled in mattered a great deal.

While more than nine in 10 high school seniors in Chicago hope to enroll in some form of postsecondary education, the study found, just under six in 10 actually do so. Those figures, which exclude students in special education or alternative schools, vary significantly by race and gender, with Latino graduates having the lowest college-going rates.

Male graduates of the district are about 7 percentage points less likely to enroll in college than female graduates and, according to the report, it is the male graduates’ poor performance in high school coursework that explains their lower college-attendance rates.

Gender differences were most pronounced among African-Americans in the school system. While 64 percent of black female graduates enroll in college, that is true for only 55 percent of black male graduates.

The report, released April 20, is based largely on the high school experiences of students in the graduating classes of 2002 and 2003, although it also looks at how students who graduated in 1998 and 1999 fared once they began college.

Grades Matter Most

To examine the effects of grades, the study calculated a grade point average based only on students’ grades in English, mathematics, science, social science, and foreign- language classes. It found more than one-third of graduates of district schools had GPAs of less than 2.0 in their core classes on a 4-point scale. Forty-seven percent of male graduates, vs. 27 percent of females, had GPAs of 2.0 or lower.

From High School to Higher Education

Scholars tracking graduates of Chicago public schools found disparities in college-attendance rates among racial and ethnic groups, both within the city and compared with the rest of Illinois and the nation.

*Click image to see the full chart.


Note: U.S. data are based on Census Bureau estimates, average of 2002 and 2003; Illinois estimates are from 2002; and Chicago estimates are from 2002 and 2003.

SOURCE: Consortium on Chicago School Research

“When you look at their course performance, there are huge gaps between boys and girls,” said Jenny Nagaoka, a co-author of the report. “On a day-to-day basis, boys and girls are having extremely different experiences and different outcomes in their classes, and this explains a lot of differences that we see in the college-going rates.”

Given comparable GPAs, male graduates were only slightly less likely to attend college than female graduates. In contrast, the college-going gap remained when male graduates were compared with their female counterparts who had similar scores on the ACT.

“I think we’re coming, increasingly, to a consensus that we really need to focus more on grades,” said Elaine M. Allensworth, a co-author of the study and the associate director of the consortium. Few of the Chicago graduates studied had the grade point averages and test scores needed for access to four-year colleges. The study found that 31 percent of the graduates were eligible for only two-year colleges, based on GPAs below 2.0, or about a C average, and ACT scores below 18 out of a possible 36. Just over half did well enough to qualify for admission to a two-year institution or a nonselective four-year college.

Low ACT scores and GPAs may also hurt students’ chances of completing college, the study found. Of Chicago graduates who enroll in a four-year college within a year after high school, just over one-third obtain a degree within six years, based on the graduating classes that were followed for that length of time. That proportion is substantially below the national rate of 64 percent.

As with college admissions, high school GPA was the best predictor of whether district students graduated from college.

Uneven Choices

The authors found wide variations in how well Chicago high schools prepared students for postsecondary education and the rates at which their graduates actually enrolled in college, even for schools that serve similar student populations.

At the low end, in seven high schools, fewer than 35 percent of graduates in the classes of 2002 and 2003 have attended any college at all. Five high schools, three of which have selective admissions, had more than 80 percent of graduates in college.

African-American and Latino students were more likely than their non-Hispanic white peers to attend high schools with poor college-enrollment rates.

Even so, only about one-third of the poor college-going rates for Latino students could be accounted for by differences in the college-enrollment rates of the high schools they graduated from, the researchers found.

“I think we’ve got a new mismatch here between the rising aspirations of Latinos in the system and the expectations of some of their high schools,” said Melissa Roderick, a co-author of the study and a co-director of the consortium. Because many Latino students have parents who never attended college, she noted, they may need more information, guidance, and support from their high schools than other students require.

Schools also differed in the access they gave students to rigorous coursework. The study found that about half the graduates never took an honors or Advanced Placement course. Only 9 percent had sustained exposure to rigorous college-prep courses, characterized by six or more honors courses and at least two AP courses or enrollment in the International Baccalaureate program.


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