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CPS Wants Students to Plan for the Future. But It Could Backfire

The new graduation requirement could push kids down risky paths—unless CPS invests in counselors, experts say.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool   Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced this month that Chicago Public Schools students would be required to have a post-high school plan in order to graduate. The first of its kind, the proposal dictates each student must provide proof of acceptance into a college, trade program, gap year program, job offer, or military enrollment—or else, no diploma.

“Our goal is to make sure nobody spikes the ball at 12th grade,” Emanuel said on CBS This Morning the day of the announcement. “We want to make 14th grade universal. That’s the new goal line.”

But not everyone is convinced that the rule, which would go into effect for the current freshman class if passed by the board of education, could help reach this goal. The beleaguered school system has undergone significant cuts to programs and staff in recent years, and critics say that rather than making it harder to get a diploma, schools should provide more resources to its lowest-performing students, who struggle to even graduate. Some say the rule would encourage students to drop out or choose a path based on the requirement, rather than their own life goals. As Miles Kampf-Lassin wrote at the Reader, “This plan could serve to push these students into joining the military rather than improving their education or even just getting a job.”

In response, city officials point out that all CPS students on track for graduation are automatically accepted into City Colleges of Chicago, should they choose to apply. Those with a 3.0 or higher and college-ready test scores qualify for free tuition and textbooks through the STAR scholarship.

But students with the least resources (and worst grades) are still vulnerable to being forced into a path that doesn’t work for them, says Tressie McMillan Cottom, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. The students often come from families not equipped to help them apply for college or discern between post-secondary education options, she says.

“It’s holding [at-risk] students accountable for navigating the complex post-graduation life that they already have demonstrated they don’t have the resources to navigate,” says McMillan Cottom, who was once a recruiter for two for-profit colleges, and whose book focuses on the predatory practices of such institutions.

Constantine Yannelis, co-author of a Brookings Institution paper on the student loan crisis, confirms that many students saddled with exorbitant loans for for-profit colleges hail from lower-income, minority backgrounds.

“I could see the [proposed CPS] requirement being of great benefit for students to apply to colleges,” he says. “I can also see things going the other way if there are information constraints and students don’t know about the returns when they are enrolling in degrees or about alternative options.”

CPS plans to provide school counselors additional information on alternative pathways besides college, says Alan Mather, head of CPS’s office of college and career success. (The effort will hopefully be aided by $1 million that the mayor hopes to raise from “philanthropic and business communities,” CPS adds.)

But CPS’s ability to hire new counselors depends on the budget—a bad sign, considering the district’s tenuous financial situation. CPS cut $46 million from its budget two months ago after a failed state-level pension agreement, and it saw another harsh round of layoffs last fall due to declining enrollment.

Currently, every CPS high school employs at least one counselor, Mather says, though he acknowledges that not every student seeks advising. Counselors attend an eight-day training program, one of those sessions being focused on workforce pathways outside of a traditional college degree, such as a coding boot camp.

“As we build out our workforce in Chicago, it’s going to be very key to have counselors aware of those pathways and guide students,” he says.

Northwestern University social policy professor James Rosenbaum adds that fraudulent schooling, like the for-profit programs that offer little job training for high prices, is a problem with or without a district-wide graduation requirement,

“It’s happening now, it has been happening for a number of years, so I don’t know if this reform is necessarily increasing it,” he says. “But it does point to that as a potential risk.”

Rosenbaum’s research shows that while many of those colleges prey on students, there are some that employers trust. Those programs have the benefit of job training under an accelerated timeline compared to community colleges.

In Chicago, Emanuel’s announcement came on the heels of yet another dust-up with Trump, who mocked the city for having “very rough” graduation stats. In fact, CPS has seen an impressive jump in graduation rates—the largest among the nation’s urban school districts.

The graduation requirement has potential, Yannelis says, but he hopes to see more coaching on financial literacy so students do not become buried in student loans. Rosenbaum also believes Emanuel’s graduation requirement is a worthwhile push toward students thinking about their careers, but says they need more guidance during high school for post-graduation success.

“By itself, it risks not being sufficient,” Rosenbaum says. “But combined with a post-secondary coaching program, you can see a lot of students attaining goals in a realistic way.”

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