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Rahm Emanuel’s plan to push Chicago teens to go to college, explained

Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago
Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Chicago Public Schools has a new requirement for its 435,000 students: To graduate, they must prove they have a post-graduation plan. That means a college acceptance letter, a job offer, military orders, or enrollment in a job training program.

The idea of making students go through an extra hurdle to graduate sparked some criticism in the press when it was first reported in April, especially because Chicago schools already have a lower-than-average graduation rate. Some critics worried that the new requirement would hold back students who are already struggling to pass their classes.

Janice Jackson, chief education officer of Chicago Public Schools and one of the plan’s architects, says she doesn’t think it will keep anyone back. She notes that other requirements they added in the past — community service hours and taking the ACT college readiness exams — didn't lower graduation rates. And she says school leaders want to make sure that students at all schools are getting the same level of college guidance. “Sometimes you have to make things mandatory,” she says.

By doing so, the district is trying a bold, somewhat extreme move to prepare students to survive in a new economy; an economy that needs workers who have more skills than they get in high school.

A high school diploma is really not enough anymore

The reasoning behind the new requirement is logical. Earning a good living with only a high school diploma is more difficult now than ever. Fifty years ago, high school graduates could easily raise a family and live comfortable, middle-class lives. A common scenario looked like this: An 18-year-old boy graduated from high school and got a job at the local auto factory, assembling car parts. By the time he turned 25, he was already earning the national median salary and could think about starting a family.

Pew Research Center

“Those days are long gone,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Now Americans typically don’t gain financial independence until around age 32, he says, which is when they tend to start earning the national median salary (in 2015, that was $56,516 per household). And the earnings gap between college graduates and high school graduates is widening.

The main reason for this shift is simple. Machines now do a lot of the easier factory work that people used to do, so the factory jobs that are left require a higher level of skill that you just can’t get from a high school education. On top of that, the American economy has been moving away from production and manufacturing toward more service-based industries. Health care technicians and air conditioning technicians are today’s equivalent of the comfortable, middle-class factory jobs, but they require a special training certificate.

According to Carnevale’s research, by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school. In the early 1970s, only about 28 percent of workers had that.

So how do you prepare students to make a living in the modern economy? Carnevale says public schools can try three things: show students how to enroll in postsecondary education, bribe them to do it, or force them to do it.

Chicago chose the last option.

Students who are expected to go to college are more likely to go

Jackson, the head of Chicago’s schools, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel crafted the new rule after researchers began studying why so many city youths weren't going to college, even when they had good grades. The district is made up mostly of low-income students who would be the first in their families to attend college, according to the report.

About 10 years ago, sociologists at the University of Chicago interviewed and tracked 105 students from three different high schools and identified the two main steps that threw them off: finding the right college, and then enrolling in it. Of the students surveyed, only about half of those who wanted to go to college actually applied and enrolled in one. And only 76 percent of students who had the test scores and grades to attend a four-year college actually applied.

It turns out that the teens couldn’t navigate the process on their own. This passage says everything: “Across all our analyses, the single most consistent predictor of whether students took steps toward college enrollment was whether their teachers reported that their high school had a strong college climate, that is, they ... pushed students to go to college, worked to ensure that students would be prepared, and were involved in supporting students in completing their college applications.”

Applying for financial aid ahead of time also changed a student’s chances of going to college. Students who completed a federal aid application by graduation and were accepted into a four-year college were more than 50 percent more likely to enroll than those who had not. This was the case even after researchers controlled for differences in students’ qualifications, family background, neighborhood characteristics, and support from teachers, counselors, and parents.

Researchers concluded that simply improving students’ grades is not enough to get them into college unless schools “provide a better structure and support for students in the college search, planning, and application process.” The report also urged the Chicago school district to give students more support in figuring out how to pay for college.

Chicago wants to force students to plan ahead

Jackson believes the new graduation requirement will push schools to create a college-going culture. If they don’t, then students won’t graduate, and nobody wants that. “It will definitely require extra work with students who need more motivation,” she said.

Some critics have questioned whether Chicago has the authority to force students to apply to college (or find another alternative) at all. But the district had previously added other graduation requirements, such as demanding that students take the ACT, without legal challenges. And the state Board of Education allows districts some flexibility. The point, district officials say, is to force students to plan ahead.

“In schools with high levels of support, every child was already walking out with a postsecondary plan,” Jackson said. “There are schools where we need to push a little bit more.”

But if the focus is on getting students into college, why is an offer for a minimum-wage job acceptable under the new requirement?

Jackson says that guidance counselors are going to show students how much money they could make if they picked another route.

“When they sit down and go through this process, they’re going to be presented with different options showing the earning power of a high school graduate compared with a college graduate,” she says. “Information is power.”

To get enough well-trained counselors to help out students, the mayor is trying to raise $1 million from private companies. Chicago high schools currently have about one counselor for every 360 students, according to a spokesperson for the school district, and a few nonprofit groups also provide guidance to students in schools.

Carnevale, of the Center on Education and the Workforce, says shifting the responsibility onto the students has benefits and drawbacks. “When you raise standards, we know that a certain share of the population will rise to the standard and another group of kids will fall even further behind,” he said. “This is survival of the fittest.”

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