Overcoming Barriers To College Completion :New Study From Chicago

Guest blogger : Chris Mazzeo

*Overcoming Barriers to College Completion: What We are Learning in Chicago

As readers to this blog no doubt know, the aspiration to attain a college degree has become nearly universal among high school students, and the percentage of students making the immediate transition to college has risen among all racial and ethnic groups. However, while college enrollment is now a reachable goal, the proportion of students who complete a college degree has barely changed. And despite increases in enrollment, minority students continue to lag in both four-year college enrollment and degree completion rates. The primary issue in college access is no longer building college aspirations, but helping all students to achieve their college goals.

Barriers to College Attainment: Lessons from Chicago, a recent report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) published by the Center for American Progress (CAP), sheds light on ways to close the gap between aspirations and attainment. The paper draws on the findings from a multi-year study of the college qualifications, enrollment, and graduation patterns of Chicago graduates. The goal of this research is to better understand the determinants of students’ postsecondary success and to identify key levers for improvement in Chicago and elsewhere. By focusing on the issues facing students in one large urban district, the project can also serve as a case study for other cities and communities.

Chicago is a useful laboratory for national and state policymakers for a number of reasons. Over the past several years, the Chicago Public School system has engaged in a major initiative to address what has become a national policy question: How do we increase college access and attainment for low-income minority and first generation college students? In 2003, the CPS administration established the Department of Postsecondary Education and Student Development, charged with ensuring that all Chicago students have access to the courses, opportunities, and experiences that will prepare them for a viable postsecondary education or career. As part of this initiative, CPS tracked and reported college participation rates of its graduates using data from the National Student Clearinghouse, becoming the first major school system in the country to do so.

The data from Chicago suggest that the current policy focus on increasing qualifications is warranted; low qualifications pose a significant barrier to college enrollment and degree attainment for graduates, particularly Latino, African-American, and male graduates.
Yet CCSRs research on Chicago also suggests that if we are to address the central barrier to college access—raising academic qualifications—there must be an equivalent attempt to ensure that first-generation students aspire to attend the colleges that demand those qualifications, and that they have access to the guidance, information, and support they need to effectively navigate the college application process that their more advantaged counterparts have. Our analysis suggests that Chicago students, even those who are qualified to attend four-year colleges, often do not conduct broad college searches, and, as a result, they enroll in colleges that are less selective than their qualification warrant. Moreover, the colleges many of these students attend have very low college graduation rates

How can folks concerned with college completion address both academic qualifications and the problem of “college knowledge”? CCSR suggests three potential strategies that district, state, and federal policymakers can productively employ. First, our work in Chicago—and any efforts to increase college attainment—rests on having data systems that link high school to college outcomes. Accountability systems and understanding the nature of the problem require tracking outcomes across schools and institutions and over time. Second, improving college readiness and college access will require supporting and building the capacity of high school educators to meet the challenge of providing their students the skills and guidance they need. Finally, the federal government, states, and districts must develop policies that send strong signals and provide incentives to students and schools about what is required to gain access to and succeed in college.

Guest Blogger:

Christopher Mazzeo
Associate Director for Policy and Outreach Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) University of Chicago
1313 East 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60657

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