August 30, 2008

Revamping the Path to College Study Shows Chicago-Area Schools Need to Do More for College-Bound

By Kerry Lester

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Weak school support and financial aid hurdles can derail even the most qualified students on the road to college, says a new study that could be instructive for suburban school authorities.

"From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College," released last week by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, found of the 95 percent of Chicago Public School students who planned to go on to post-secondary education in 2005, only 59 percent applied to a four-year college. Only 41 percent of students ultimately enrolled the fall after graduation.

"There's a huge gap between students accepted to school and those who actually enroll," said Jenny Nagaoka, a co-author of the study and researcher at the consortium. "The primary reason why is because they did not fill out their financial aid forms."

The three-year study looked at data from more than 5,000 Chicago public high school graduates, but the results could apply to suburban districts, particularly to students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Researchers interviewed and tracked the academic progress of 105 students.

"Knowing how to choose a college and apply to college and then get to college is not something people are born with," Nagaoka said.

Among the study's key findings was the necessity of teacher support.

"Teachers matter more than parents in the college-search process, especially among first-generation college students," she said,

The study, Nagaoka said, can be applied to almost any district, including those in suburban Chicago, where immigrants and their children made up 33 percent of the population in 2005, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The majority of those individuals are Latinos living in the Northwest and Western suburbs.

Among minority groups in the consortium study, Latino students fared the worst, with 46 percent applying to four-year colleges, yet only 30 percent actually enrolling in the fall. Many Latino students opted, instead, for a two-year college.

"I think a lot of people think Latino parents aren't supportive of their children going on to college," Nagaoka said. "That's not an issue. Latino parents are interested, but if they themselves have not attended college, they have less of an understanding of the higher-education system."

Which makes teachers a valuable resource for information about college.

Chicago high schools, the study concluded, must be more proactive in structuring the application process during junior and senior years.

"Tracking (financial aid form) completion is a significant improvement, but it won't dramatically change outcomes unless schools work earlier to help families and students understand what financial aid is and how funding is available," Nagaoka said.

Schools also must work to create stronger college-going cultures, the study concluded.

"It is asking a lot of teachers, but I think treating every student as if they are going to go on to a four-year college is a way of motivating," Nagaoka said.

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