Slightly more 2010 CPS graduates enrolled in college in September compared to the previous year, but still a third of high schools sent less than half of their grads to college and 37 schools or a third saw smaller percentages of their graduates move on than last year. Ever since 2004, when CPS contracted with the National Student Clearinghouse to obtain college enrollment data for their graduates, district leaders have held press conferences touting even small increases in college-going. At the time, matching lists of high school graduates against college enrollees was a novel idea, and former CEO Arne Duncan and his team earned praise for the accountability it created.

The move also shined a bright light on the stark reality of how few graduates went straight to college. In 2004, only 43.5 percent of graduates enrolled in college the following fall. Since then, the percentage has gone up each year. Of 2010 graduates, 55.7 percent enrolled, up from 54.4 percent in 2009. This year, the figures were quietly handed out to schools and area offices. 

For some high schools, the college enrollment data provided sobering news. Crane, Farragut, Harper and six other neighborhood high schools—which already had the district’s lowest college-going rates—went backwards in 2010.

In contrast, all the selective enrollment high schools and military academies–many of which already rank among the best in college enrollment—posted increases.

Meanwhile, a new piece of information will shed light on college persistence, not just enrollment. The district is now tracking grads into their sophomore year of college. In the past, some 70 percent of college attendees continued into their sophomore year, but this past fall 82 percent came back, according to the district. 

Latino males improve

The big story from last year’s data was for Latino males, who were finally starting to see gains in college enrollment after spending years at the bottom. But this year’s improvement was only 1 percentage point. About 52 percent of Latino male students graduated from high school, and only 44 percent of those students enrolled in college.

CPS officials say they are working on an effort to boost overall Latino enrollment in college.

Though the numbers are low, in the current economic recession they could be worse, says Luis Gutierrez, executive director of Latinos Progresando, which runs the College-Bound Youth Group for students from Little Village, Pilsen and Back of the Yards.

Gutierrez says there is a lot of pressure on young men to work, especially if their family is struggling.

“They feel a lot of responsibility,” he says. Gutierrez and his staff try to convince the young men and women in the Youth Group that going to college is a good investment in their future. The organization also provides mentoring and workshops on financial aid and other college-related topics.

However, support for organizations working on the issue isn’t always there. Recently, the Latino Education Alliance closed its doors because of lack of funding. The Latino Education Alliance mostly worked with students at Juarez High School.

Executive Director Bertha Magana says that she is planning on taking the lessons learned from that experience and leveraging them to help community groups dealing with the same issues.

“The need didn’t go away,” she says.

Black males continue to make gains

Black males saw a 2.5 percent increase in college enrollment in 2010. Some of that was driven by Urban Prep-Englewood, the city’s only all-boy’s charter school. Its student population is 97 percent African American.

According to NSC data, 75.7 percent of Urban Prep-Englewood’s first graduating class enrolled in college by the following spring, well above the district’s average of 50.6 percent for black males. But officials at the school refute these figures and say they have proof that upwards of 97 percent of their graduates enrolled in a university in the fall after graduating.

Urban Prep received national attention when leaders announced that all their graduates were admitted to a four-year university. Kelly Dickens, vice president of institutional advancement for Urban Prep, says that school officials got information from NSC and took it upon themselves to verify that an additional 19 students had enrolled.

“I have letters from the colleges,” says Dickens. (Dickens declined to share the letters with Catalyst.)

Kathy Dugan, marketing director for NSC, says that sometimes students are missed, though the organization is careful. CPS provides NSC with information about graduates, which the NSC matches against its information.

“A name could be typed in wrong,” Dugan explains, and sometimes students enroll late or withdraw by the time the NSC makes the match. (CPS’ matches are made on November 1, according to the district.)

Ninety-two percent of all two-and-four-year colleges report information to the National Student Clearinghouse so some students could be attending institutions that don’t report information, most of which are trade schools for for-profit colleges.

CPS officials note that the National Student Clearinghouse is the most complete source of information available. And one former administrator from CPS says she is doubtful that the data is so drastically wrong for Urban Prep. She notes that when the district began doing the matches, several schools, especially magnets, complained that their data was off, but, upon investigation, the school principals realized that students they thought had enrolled really hadn’t.

Dickens notes that Urban Prep takes pains to not only get their students enrolled but also to support them while they are in college. He says they have an office set up to help their alumni in college navigate financial and academic difficulties.

“We are continuously trying to make sure we provide the best support,” he said. “We are learning and adapting.”

Dickens says that about 80 percent of the Urban Prep graduates who enrolled in college survived freshman year and are planning to return in the fall. Most of the students who left couldn’t keep up financially, he says.

“The financial aid environment has tightened up in recent years,” Dickens says.

Finding the right match

Figuring out how to match students with a college that can not only meet their academic needs, but also their financial ones, is the key, says Melissa Roderick, principal investigator for the Network for College Success, which is based at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of   Chicago.

Using findings from Consortium on Chicago School Research studies authored by Roderick, the Network for College Success has been working with 11 high schools to create systems that will not only ensure that more students apply to four-year colleges, but make sure they apply to the right ones.

On average, the Network schools increased their college-going rates by 5 percentage points overall and six percentage points for four-year universities. By contrast, CPS only increased their college going rate by .7 percentage points.

“I can’t believe the progress that Network schools made in such a short period of time,” Roderick says.

The Network has formed a partnership with the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, a group of small liberal arts institutions that include Grinnell College in Iowa, Beloit College in Wisconsin and Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. These small colleges are expensive, but can often offer better financial packages to students than seemingly less-expensive state universities, Roderick notes.

In past years, fewer than 10 students from the Network schools went to an Associated Colleges institution. Last year, 28 did.

Roderick points out that the Network and its schools are doing particularly well with young men. At Hancock and Wells, two majority-Latino schools, the male college-going rate increased by more than 9 percent.

“These schools are challenging many of the assumptions that we hear and that educators make about Latino students not wanting to go away to college and their families being unsupportive,”  she says. “We were surprised to see that once you set up systems, how much can move.”

But two of the Network’s schools, Crane and Dyett, saw decreases in college enrollment. Roderick points out that Dyett has a small graduating class and only two fewer students enrolled in college.

She also says the information underscores a lingering problem that goes deeper than college enrollment. At Crane and Dyett, few students have an academic record that will get them into even a marginally selective college. Their average ACT scores are slightly above 14 out of 36—below the generally accepted standard for less-selective colleges. One senior at Crane in 2010 had an ACT score above 20, two at Dyett.

Roderick says that ACT scores aren’t the biggest problem. Her research has shown that grade-point averages matter more in predicting how students will perform in college. And by senior year, students at Crane and Dyett have low GPAs. Only five graduates at Dyett had GPS’s greater than 3.0 or a B-average.

“In schools where few graduates have GPA and ACT scores that give them a chance of attending a four-year college, working on applications isn’t enough,” Roderick says. “It’s about raising GPA’s and ACT scores so that seniors are even eligible to attend a four-year college.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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