Colleges Earn Mixed Grades with Urban Students

Less than two-thirds of the freshmen at the nation's four-year colleges and universities earn bachelors' degrees within six years, and the graduation rates for low-income and minority students are under 30 percent at some institutions.[1] The leaders of many such campuses say they are doing the best they can, given the students they serve. But a recent study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research suggests otherwise, concluding that some institutions are much more successful than others in helping students with similar high school achievement profiles earn college degrees.

The April 2006 report tracked students who graduated from theChicago school system in 1998 and 1999 and immediately enrolled in a four-year college or university. As Chart One shows, Chicago students were much more likely to graduate from some institutions than from others: 66 percent of those enrolled at Loyola University Chicago earned degrees, for example, while only 16 percent graduated from Chicago State.

Those differences are partly a function of the type of students different institutions enroll. Private research universities like Loyola tend to enroll students with stronger academic backgrounds who are more likely to succeed in college and ultimately graduate.

But Chart Two shows that institutions had very different success rates with students coming to college with similar levels of high school achievement. Graduation rates for Chicago students with a 3.5 GPA ranged from less than 20 percent at NortheasternIllinois University to almost 90 percent at NorthwesternUniversity. Chicago students with a 4.0 GPA who attended the prestigious University of Illinois at Urbana were significantly less likely to graduate than similar students who attend Northwestern or Loyola.

The consortium report doesn't explain why some institutions are more successful than others in graduating similar students, but the large differences suggest that lower-performing universities could learn from the success of their peers. In the meantime, students, parents, and guidance counselors in Chicago should rely on more than just institutional reputations when choosing colleges. Real evidence of success in helping urban students graduate matters too.

[1] Lutz Berkner, Shirley He, and Emily F. Cataldi, Descriptive Summary of 1995-96 Beginning Postsecondary Students: Six Years Later, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2002. Kevin Carey, One Step From the Finish Line: Higher College Graduation Rates are Within Our Reach, The Education Trust, 2005

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Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy program at New America.