Back in 2006, Chicago researchers released a startling report on the post-secondary success of CPS students. The study ultimately concluded that just eight of every 100 high school freshmen would end up getting a college degree.

The numbers were worse for black and Hispanic boys. Only 4 percent obtained a degree.

Today, more CPS students are getting college degrees – 14 percent — but the results are still unequal across race and gender, according to a new study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Schools Research. The difference is most stark when comparing the outcomes of boys of color: While the rate of degree attainment remains in the single digits for black boys, at 6 percent, the rate nearly tripled among Hispanic boys to 11 percent.

“These young black men have been failed by their parents, their communities, their teachers, their elected officials,” says Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project, a Chicago group that seeks to eliminate the racial academic achievement gap.  “We can’t hold the colleges responsible without holding the high schools and the elementary schools and the entire community responsible.”

The Consortium’s report does not address why the rate of degree attainment grew at such different levels between different demographics groups. But senior research analyst Kaleen Healey says there are two key pieces to consider when looking at whether you’ll graduate from college: your high school GPA and the college you attend. Black students tend to have lower GPAs, which affects the type of college they have access to – often those with lower overall graduation rates, she said.

Across racial groups, females continue to have higher degree attainment rates than their male counterparts. And Hispanic girls have now surpassed black girls.

“Significant progress” driven by graduation rates

The Consortium’s so-called “degree attainment index” of 14 percent was calculated by multiplying the most recent CPS high school graduation rate, college enrollment rate and college graduation rate. Together, those three rates create a new, single metric that can be tracked over time. The rate offers a more real-time estimate than simply following a cohort of students over a decade.

In the new study, the Consortium also calculated a separate degree attainment rate that includes CPS students who did not follow a straight-forward path to college. This includes students who first enrolled in a two-year college and those who did not immediately enroll in any type of college after graduating from high school. The adjusted rate inches up to 17 percent today and would have been about 9 percent if it had been calculated in 2006.

Using either the 14 or 17 percent rate, CPS compared favorably to other large urban districts, the Consortium found. For example, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. have reported degree attainment rates ranging from 9 to 11 percent.

Nationally, less than a third of 9th-graders obtain four-year degrees by their mid-twenties.

Aarti Dhupelia, CPS chief officer of college and career success, said she was encouraged by the findings.

“Obviously the number is not high enough, but it’s significant forward progress driven by our increasing high school graduation rate, our college readiness rate and our college enrollment rate,” she said.

Indeed, researchers say the overall increase in the percentage of CPS freshmen who go on to obtain degrees from four-year colleges is due largely to improvements in the high school graduation rate, which has risen for all demographic groups. According to the Consortium’s calculations, the overall rate rose from 58 percent in 2006 to 73 percent last year. (The Consortium’s rate is higher than the 5-year rate CPS reports because of how transfers are counted.) With more students graduating from high school, a higher number are enrolling in college and getting degrees.

Still, Healey says the numbers can improve. “The next frontier is getting students through college, and this has to be a joint effort with institutions of higher education,” she said. “CPS can’t do it alone.”

Dhupelia said CPS is preparing to announce a new project called the Chicago Higher Education Compact, which will be an agreement between the district and those colleges where the most CPS graduates tend to enroll. “We’re basically asking them to join us in setting a goal around college graduation rates for CPS students,” she said. “And we’re going to work further on our high school graduation rates, college readiness rates and quality of college advising.”

Catalyst’s upcoming winter issue will take on the topic of college persistence and the sometimes challenging paths CPS grads face in getting their college diplomas. Email associate editor Melissa Sanchez at to share your thoughts.

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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