A Well-Intended Bad Idea: Mayor Emanuel’s Plan for Chicago High Schools

Yesterday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a plan that would require all graduating Chicago Public Schools seniors to prove that they've been accepted to a four or two year college, trade school, internship, apprenticeship, or enlisted in the armed services before they can receive a diploma. 

When the Mayor initially announced his plan, he failed to mention that students could graduate with full-time employment offers or admission into gap-year programs, sparking outrage across Twitter and the op-ed pages. The Mayor’s Office and Chicago Public Schools issued a clarification this morning, but there’s still little to celebrate about Emanuel’s plan.

New graduation requirements would increase opportunities for for-profit colleges to prey on high school students, exclude those planning to enter full-time caregiving roles after graduation, and likely do little to improve students’ readiness for life after high school.

As Tressie Mcmillan Cottom, author of Lower Ed, pointed out yesterday, the graduation requirement could mean that many Chicago seniors are pushed to apply to for-profit colleges. Though they aren’t required to enroll--just show an acceptance letter--the risk of students enrolling in predatory institutions is heightened when they are required to apply. As Lower Ed illustrates, recruitment by for-profits can have dire consequences for students. Prospective students at for-profits are generally subject to highly aggressive marketing tactics that often mislead students into taking out debt far beyond their capacity to repay after earning degrees of dubious quality.  

A CPS spokeswoman noted to reporters this morning that students wouldn’t be forced to go begging to any institution willing to take them, because the City of Chicago’s community college system is open admissions—meaning that any CPS student can apply and show their acceptance letter for graduation. So students need not necessarily seek out for-profits in order to ensure that they receive a degree. But the risk that students will run into the waiting arms of these institutions is still heightened when all students are required to trade an acceptance letter for a diploma. For-profits have a strong incentive to recruit these students, not to mention the advertising revenue to do so far more aggressively than any community college could.

Beyond the risk of for-profit exploitation, the Mayor’s plan also excludes a key post-graduation plan: caregiving. Perhaps this path was excluded as a well-intentioned effort to ensure that, in a world that increasingly demands post-high school credentials, students are considering all of their options. But denying otherwise-prepared students the right to an earned diploma because they want (or, given economic realities, have to) become stay-at-home caregivers is patently unfair. It devalues the role of full-time caregivers at a time that childcare is increasingly less affordable for adults in postsecondary education and the workplace.   

Looking beyond the unintended consequences, the approach itself (using graduation requirements to increase school quality) bears questioning. Perhaps Emanuel imagines that this will be the push Chicago high schools require to prepare students better and provide them with much-needed and rarely-received college and career counseling. But the plan does not come with any additional funding to help schools accomplish these goals.

For a cautionary tale, one might look to another well-intentioned graduation requirement: the high school exit exam. Exit exams, or tests that students are required to pass in order to graduate from high school, were meant to increase the value of high school diploma, ensuring that students weren’t granted diplomas without a guarantee they were prepared for ‘the real world.’ In theory, exit exams should have ensured that more students graduated with meaningful degrees. In practice, they had no clearly discernable effect on student achievement, and increased the risk of dropping out for all student groups-and especially for minority, low-income, and low-achieving students. Instead of adding extra graduation requirements that may feel punitive for students who are already struggling, CPS should focus on providing positive reinforcement like greater resources for college and career counseling.

Exit exams heightened the bar without helping students get over it, so many of them didn't graduate. Denying students degrees until they prove they can gain acceptance to college or job training would likely do the same for many students. Though Emanuel’s plan for Chicago provides a fairly easy out—automatic community college acceptance—it could still produce a similarly negative effect.

Emanuel’s plan, like others before it, uses graduation requirements as a tool to increase the value of a diploma. But given lessons from the past (and what we know about the current landscape of higher education), Mayor Emanuel should think twice before pushing students off track to graduation or into the waiting arms of for-profit colleges.  

Author:

Abigail Swisher is a program associate with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where her work focuses primarily on college- and career-ready policies.