Why Mandate Post-School Plans in Chicago?

By Patrick Coate, PhD

One common question to ask high school seniors is what they will be doing after graduation. In Chicago, they may need to get ready to answer that question at the graduation ceremony itself. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed that in order to graduate, Chicago Public Schools students beginning with the class of 2020 will have to have proof of a job offer, college acceptance, or military enlistment.

This strikes me as a well-intentioned idea taken too far. If the goal is simply to get people talking and increase support for increased counseling and planning resources for Chicago high schoolers, then it has a sound motivation. But the plan may have negative unintended consequences.

The proposal’s supporters have correctly pointed out that a high school diploma is not a strong enough foundation for success in the modern economy. A lot of evidence shows that differences in college enrollments between wealthier and poorer school districts do not result from differences in student ability or parents’ resources, but the school system’s resources and support structure. In an op-ed for The Chicago Tribune, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan framed the requirement as a challenge to schools and students to raise expectations. A Chicago Tribune columnist quoted a charter school executive in discussing how they raise the bar for student expectations and make advancing to college part of the school culture. Supporters in general might argue that the prospect that students may be denied a diploma will push students to think seriously about their future.

All agree that a key requirement for this program to succeed will be strengthening college and career counseling at public schools. This is consistent with research that many low-income students often do not receive adequate information to make their best decisions.

It seems that should be enough. What is the benefit of denying diplomas to students who lack a settled plan but fulfill all other requirements to graduate? The rule puts too much of the burden of developing such a plan on students and is likely to have unintended consequences as schools and students look for the lowest-cost ways to comply. In fact, the initial Chicago Tribune report of Mayor Emanuel’s statement points out that “every Chicago public high school graduate essentially already meets the new standard because graduation guarantees admittance to the City Colleges of Chicago community college system.” What will likely happen if this rule is enacted is that increased resources for college planning will help motivated students — who need support, but not a push — find better opportunities, but some of that counselor and student time will be spent applying to local community colleges for students who never intend to enroll. The biggest danger is the possibility the plan is enacted without adequate resources, and the cost of complying will lead to a cookie-cutter approach and crowd out one-on-one college planning time for students whose marginal benefit is the highest. Helping high schoolers plan for their future is a worthy goal, but a district-wide mandate to show their work is not the best way to achieve it.

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