Three Implications from Our Report on CPS College Enrollment and Retention During the Pandemic

Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

By Jenny Nagaoka, Shelby Mahaffie, Alexandra Usher, and Alex Seeskin

The text below is taken from College During the Pandemic: Immediate Enrollment and Retention of CPS Graduates in Fall 2020, a report from the To&Through Project and the UChicago Consortium on School Research.

In a relatively normal year, spring is a complicated time for CPS seniors, many of whom depend on their counselors, teachers, and other adults for support with financial aid packages and complex college decisions. In conversations with peers and adults, they grapple with how different post-secondary choices will affect their identities, relationships, and future.

For the CPS graduating class of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made all of these tasks more complicated. Students who were used to popping into a counselor’s office with a question suddenly had to schedule phone calls or virtual meetings. New and continuing students had to navigate the uncertainty around whether colleges would be holding in-person or remote classes in the fall. All the while, many CPS graduates and their families were facing the brunt of the physical, emotional, and financial impact of a pandemic that disproportionately affected people of color.

We sought to understand what happened to enrollment and retention specifically for CPS graduates so that the district, higher education, and non-profit partners could continue to support the graduating classes of 2019 and 2020, while also supporting the graduating class of 2021, who will go through the entire application and enrollment process during the pandemic.

We found that CPS graduates from the class of 2020 were about as likely to enroll in a four-year college as previous cohorts, and CPS graduates from the class of 2019 were slightly more likely than previous cohorts to remain in four-year colleges between spring and fall 2020. In particular, some four-year colleges saw significant increases in enrollment and retention: Western Illinois, Columbia College, DePaul University, and Northern Illinois had over 30 percent increases in enrollment; and Illinois State, Northern Illinois, and Western Illinois had over 20 percentage point increases in retention rates.

College During the Pandemic Figure 1
College During the Pandemic Figure 3

The story was less positive around two-year colleges, where we found that CPS graduates from the class of 2020 were less likely to enroll in a two-year college, and CPS graduates from the class of 2019 who were enrolled in a two-year college in spring 2020 were less likely than previous cohorts to return to a two-year college in the fall.

College During the Pandemic Figure 4

We think these findings have three important implications for Chicago’s education system:

  1. Students in two-year colleges may need different support and policies from students at four-year colleges. Two-year college students may have borne more of the direct financial impacts of the pandemic and may also have been disproportionately impacted by increased caregiving responsibilities and family health concerns. According to a national survey commissioned by New America on community college students, not being able to afford the program and needing to work were cited as top reasons for not enrolling or not returning to college in the fall.[1] The steep decline in two-year college enrollment in 2020 underscores the need for additional supports and institutional changes for the groups of students who may have been most affected by the pandemic, including two-year college students.
  2. We need to learn from the colleges that enrolled or retained significantly more CPS graduates in 2020 than they had in prior years. For example, Western Illinois University had a 66 percent increase in its enrollment rate, and Illinois State University and Northern Illinois University both increased their spring-to-fall retention rates by more than 20 percentage points. These schools made intentional changes to financial, academic, and admissions policies that may have enabled more CPS students to enroll or remain enrolled. For example, Northern Illinois University temporarily suspended financial holds on enrollment for returning students,[2] and many colleges, including Illinois State University, received funds from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to provide emergency grants to students.[3] Some colleges, including Western Illinois University, implemented test-optional admissions policies, and others, including Northern Illinois University and Saint Xavier University, implemented test-blind admissions policies.[4] Columbia College awarded all CPS graduates with a GPA of at least 3.0 a merit scholarship, and saw a continued significant increase of students from CPS in 2020.[5]
  3. We should not assume that these trends will continue this fall. By March 2020 when the pandemic hit, many students would have been nearing the end of their college application process and had opportunities to meet in person with their guidance counselors as they explored their college options, submitted applications, and completed the FAFSA. This year’s twelfth-graders, by contrast, have been learning remotely for almost a full year and are likely facing many other challenges during the pandemic. Many students may not have been able to access the same level of support in the college application process that they would have received in-person at school.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought enormous challenges for students to enroll and continue in college. At the same time, practitioners and leaders in high schools, colleges, non-profits, and the community rose to the challenge and brought innovation and resources to ensure that the students continued to pursue their educational aspirations. Going forward, it is critical that we learn from this period in order to make or maintain changes to policy and practice that support students in pursuing their educational aspirations.

To read the research report or watch the recording of the research release webinar and accompanying panel discussion, click here.

[1] Fishman & Nguyen (2021).





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