New Report Busts Four Common Myths About College Completion

By Jenny Nagaoka, Jasmin Lee, Alexandra Usher, and Alex Seeskin

The text below is adapted from Navigating the Maze: Understanding CPS Graduates’ Paths Through College, a report from the To&Through Project and the UChicago Consortium on School Research.

The metaphors used to talk about students’ journeys through college have changed as the understanding of those journeys, and the post-secondary landscape they take place in, have evolved. A pipeline, a road, a maze: each suggests a trajectory through college of varying directness and characterizes students’ experiences very differently.

As we document in our new report, Navigating the Maze: Understanding Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Graduates’ Paths Through College, the reality is that, like most graduates across the nation, the journey CPS graduates experience through college is rarely a straight line between point A of enrollment and point B of graduation. Many students change colleges, sometimes multiple times, and many take semesters off, sometimes returning to college, sometimes not.

Students, families, and educators deserve complete information about college outcomes for past CPS graduates so that they can consider implications for their own decision making. As CPS’s college enrollment rate has increased over the past 15 years, over 7,000 more graduates have enrolled in college. But the much smaller increase in the college completion rate means that while more than 1,000 additional CPS alumni graduate from college each year, thousands more students do not complete college and are taking on a large financial burden without attaining a degree.

The data in this new report suggest that in any given year, there are thousands of CPS alumni who will transfer institutions or take time off from college (“stop out”). Many of the reasons for transitions are beyond the control of students, but knowing that different outcomes are associated with different enrollment patterns can affect the choices students make and the challenges for which they are prepared. Indeed, the findings from this report suggest that some long-held beliefs about persisting in and completing college may be incorrect. During the college choice process, adults supporting students should be clear with themselves and clear with students and their families about how CPS students actually move through higher education systems. Additionally, colleges need to develop policies and programs that address the challenges faced by many first-generation students of color that prevent them from staying in college, including financial instability, food insecurity, and family responsibilities.

The normative view of college — being continuously enrolled at one institution and graduating with a bachelor’s degree — is not typical for many students. Although some students follow this path — and those who do make up the majority of students who completed a degree or credential in our study — most CPS students transferred between colleges, stopped out, and/or delayed enrollment at some point during the six years after high school graduation. Indeed, many students experienced a transition within just their first two years after high school. For K–12 and college educators who did not experience these transitions in their own college journeys, it will be critical to examine biases and redefine what is “normal” in order to empathize with, prepare, and support students through this often-complicated experience.

Although we want and need this path to work for CPS students, only 22 percent of immediate two-year enrollees transferred to a four-year college and fewer than 7 percent of immediate two-year enrollees completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. An additional 19 percent completed an associate degree or certificate in six years. There is real value in two-year degrees and certificates, and transferring is not necessary for all students. Still, until the transfer and completion rates improve, we need to be direct with students that starting at a two-year college with the intent of transferring and completing a four-year degree has not been a successful pathway for many graduates.

Though it may sound inconsequential at first glance, our findings suggest that stopping out from college is both common and consequential. In Chicago, more than half of immediate four-year enrollees and four out of five immediate two-year enrollees took at least one semester off of school. Many did not return, and those who did return had significantly lower outcomes than students who stayed: 90 percent of all students who stopped out did not complete a degree or credential within six years. Indeed, for the most part, the only students who stopped out and still completed a degree were students who returned to college after only one semester off. For many graduates, circumstances beyond their control drive the decision to take time off of college, but we need to do everything in our power to stay connected to students and remove barriers that cause students to stop out.

Taking a “gap year” has become popular with some high school graduates around the country, but the data in this report suggests that for many CPS students, delaying college enrollment results in lower completion rates: only 8 percent of students who delayed college enrollment completed a degree or credential within six years. Not all graduates have the resources or the support structures to enroll directly in college, but counselors should be wary of recommending time off to those who are able to directly enroll in college.

Read the To&Through Project and UChicago Consortium’s new report Navigating the Maze: Understanding CPS Graduates’ Paths Through College

The To&Through Project aims to increase high school & post-secondary completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago & around the country.