A maze, not a path: For CPS grads, there’s no standard route from high school diploma to college degree. And the pandemic has added many detours.

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In her second semester at a predominantly white institution, Robyn Smith decided to transfer to a historically Black school.

A tuition increase prompted Arthur Wells to switch from a four-year university to a two-year college.

For Amara Jackson, the coronavirus pandemic was behind a late-summer decision to stay in Chicago for her freshman year, since classes were going to be online anyway.

Even before the pandemic, it was common for young adults to transfer or take time off during their college years.

Now, two recent reports by the UChicago Consortium on School Research and the To&Through Project provide insights researchers hope can improve college outcomes, particularly among Chicago Public Schools alumni.

One report, released in late May, studies the college journeys of 63,000 CPS graduates from the classes of 2010 to 2012. Students diverged, with more than 6,000 different trajectories in the six years after high school, charting courses researchers likened more to mazes than paths.

The other report, published in April, examines COVID-19′s effects on college enrollment and retention for last year’s CPS graduates, who were suddenly isolated during a pivotal time in their lives. Researchers said they’re encouraged that college enrollment for the CPS class of 2020 did not decline as much as some had anticipated, though enrollment patterns differed from the norm, and many students changed their plans as the pandemic surged.

‘Stopping out’

For many CPS graduates, the college experience is far less straightforward than going to a four-year university or transferring from a two-year school.

While many graduates enroll in two-year colleges as a “steppingstone,” that’s not always how it works out. More than three-quarters of students in the CPS class of 2011 who went straight to a two-year college reported that they planned to complete at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the UChicago report. But only around one-fifth transferred to a four-year school.

“Students often receive guidance around college choice that focuses on two-year colleges’ ‘transfer function’ and portrays them as a financially and academically more accessible option for starting on the path to a four-year college degree,” researchers wrote. “The reality is that although we tend to think about movement between two-year and four-year colleges primarily in terms of planned transfers from a two-year college to a four-year college, it was more common for CPS graduates to enroll in a four-year college and then transfer to a two-year college.”

Where students first enroll can have major implications on their college outcomes.

Most students who completed a four-year degree within six years had gone directly to a four-year college. Eighty-three percent of students who started in two-year programs, and half of those in four-year programs, took a semester off at some point, which researchers refer to as “stopping out” and say may be an early warning sign that a student is off track. Close to 90% of students who “stopped out” for at least one semester did not obtain a degree within six years.

Alex Seeskin, director of the To&Through Project, said colleges “need to do everything in their power to stay connected to students and remove barriers to college completion that are frequently outside of a student’s control.”

“Our findings show a high rate of CPS graduates transferring and stopping out of college, which suggests that the higher education system is failing many of our students,” Seeskin said.

It’s hard to pinpoint why some students end up transferring or stopping out, but it’s important to understand, said Jenny Nagaoka, deputy director of the UChicago Consortium. The fact that roughly half the students who “stop out” go back to college at some point indicates they are invested in their education but may need more support, she said. Some students with financial concerns may not know to negotiate scholarships or were awarded scholarships that were not renewable after freshman year.

After Arthur Wells graduated from Julian High School in 2017, he accepted a full scholarship to Valparaiso University. But a tuition increase the following year meant his scholarship was no longer a full ride and he’d have to take out loans. “I didn’t know every year tuition goes up,” he said.

He transferred to City Colleges’ Olive-Harvey campus and finished his associate degree at Kennedy-King. Now he is putting those credits toward a bachelor’s degree in information technology, taking online classes through DeVry University. He will be the first person in his immediate family to earn a four-year degree.

“I’m not surrounded by college graduates in my family,” Wells said. “I kind of was in the dark, trying to figure it out on my own.”

Nearly all of his education will be covered by grants and scholarships, and he’s been able to save money from his lifeguard job while living with family in Roseland. He also helped care for his grandmother, who had cancer. Before she died in September, she asked Wells to take care of her husband, who is like a grandfather to him. Having online classes “gives me a lot of free time to help out around the house,” he said.

Unexpected findings

When it became clear students would not finish the 2019-2020 school year in person, the higher education community worried about how health and financial challenges resulting from the pandemic would affect students’ ability to enroll in college.

“In the absence of reliable data, practitioners and policymakers have been forced to make assumptions about what happened to the class of 2020 and previous graduates of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) currently attending college,” researchers wrote.

Some of those assumptions were challenged by what the researchers found, amid a national slide in college enrollment last fall that included a 5.4% decline in first-time undergraduate enrollment at public colleges in Illinois, according to the UChicago report. Undergraduate spring enrollment has been down 7.5% from last year in Illinois and 5.9% nationally, according to data released by the National Student Clearinghouse. Community colleges in the state saw enrollment decline by 13%, also worse than the national trend.

“Despite these challenges, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the enrollment and retention rates of CPS graduates appeared to be smaller than the national rates,” the UChicago report states.

However, the decline in college enrollment of CPS graduates from 61.8% in 2019 to 57.2% in 2020 accelerated a downward trend that began in 2017 and has been most profound among community colleges, according to the report.

About 41% of last year’s CPS graduates enrolled in four-year colleges that fall, down slightly from the class of 2019, according to the report. Another 16.4% of 2020 graduates enrolled in two-year colleges, down 3.6 percentage points from the prior year. While 2019 graduates were more likely to stay in four-year colleges between spring and fall 2020, those enrolled in a two-year college in spring 2020 were less likely than previous years to return to one in the fall.

“In many ways, this is probably not surprising,” Nagaoka said. “... The students who go to two-year colleges are quite often very different from students who go to four-year colleges, and all of the challenges that students were facing during the pandemic were most likely particularly acute for students who were in community colleges. And we’ve seen this nationally ... the financial impact of the pandemic had a disproportionate effect on students who were in two-year colleges and particularly students of color.”

Many people had guessed the opposite would happen — that if students were going to be remote anyway, two-year enrollment would go up, Nagaoka said. It’s difficult to predict what will happen to enrollment and retention patterns after the pandemic.

“It’s an interesting question, if this is part of some kind of reversal where students will start to stay in four-year colleges in the long term, or if it’s a blip?” Nagaoka said. Going forward, she said, it’s important to consider what different supports students need to enroll and stay enrolled in both two-year and four-year colleges.

While researchers linked specific policies and supports to strong enrollment and retention numbers during the pandemic, they found no clear correlation with learning model. Schools that gained CPS students had a range of online, in-person and hybrid formats, though the school with the greatest increase, Western Illinois University, offered primarily in-person classes in the fall, according to the report.

In August, Amara Jackson made the difficult decision to stay in Chicago and attend DePaul University instead of her first choice college, Clark Atlanta University. She had excitedly shopped for dorm room supplies, but with the announcement that classes would be entirely remote, the Kenwood Academy graduate decided it didn’t make sense to move so far away.

Like many colleges, DePaul reduced the number of students living on campus, among other COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Jackson said she felt disconnected from her peers in the apartment-style building downtown where she was placed. She took remote classes and had limited opportunities to meet friends. After the first semester, she moved back in with her family.

With campuses starting to reopen and COVID-19 vaccines more prevalent, Jackson applied to transfer to Clark Atlanta for her sophomore year. She was accepted in May and is hoping for a spot in the dorms.

DePaul enrolled 120 more CPS graduates from the class of 2020 than the previous year. CPS students also filled 29% more seats than the previous year at St. Xavier University, 33% more at Northern Illinois University and 38% more at Columbia College Chicago.

Significant dips at five other schools balanced out the gains: The University of Illinois at Chicago, Eastern Illinois, Northeastern Illinois, Illinois State and University of Michigan saw drops of 25% to 36% in the enrollment of CPS grads, according to the UChicago report.

As to whether the trend might continue next school year, a DePaul spokesperson said it’s still too early to report freshman enrollment, and the university won’t have data on students who are transferring to another school until the fall.

‘Loss of life, loss of jobs’

Heidi Truax,executive director of CPS’ school counseling and postsecondary advising office, said it’s been insightful for the district to connect with schools that enrolled more CPS graduates.

“What we found is they did stuff we’d been recommending for years, and so it’s so gratifying to see them actually take initiative on those things and for it to make a difference,” she said during a panel discussion. “It also gives us leverage to ask for more higher education institutions to do that work.”

Test waivers made a big difference, along with CPS-specific scholarships and schools that agreed to cover remaining tuition and fee costs after students had applied for other aid, Truax said.

Enrollment jumps of CPS graduates at both Northern and Western Illinois universities have been attributed to those strategies, along with tutoring services and policy reforms around billing and academic holds. Some of the changes were already underway before the pandemic and are planned to continue.

Truax said an “aha” moment was seeing colleges “stepping up to say we are actually going to help you cover costs to make sure that you can enroll in light of the pandemic. Which leads us to ask, why can’t this always be the practice? If we’re really considering equity and access for success, we need to be considering how we are helping students close these gaps.”

Truax said her office is shifting away from a focus on “summer melt” and trying to build an alumni network with longer-term support from postsecondary advisers, peer mentors and higher education partners.

Through philanthropic partnerships, CPS has also been able to connect students with emergency funding to help with tuition, fees and other needs, she said. They started with students in the class of 2020 participating in a pilot program, but in May planned to open up the resource to more students including the class of 2021, she said.

Emergency costs, like those brought on by a pandemic, can single-handedly alter a student’s trajectory, and it’s been heartbreaking to read students’ reasons for needing financial help, Truax said.

“Loss of life, loss of jobs, and they’re still trying to persist,” she said.

Almost every student who didn’t enroll in college in the fall said they needed to work full time, were caring for a sick relative or had to look after younger siblings because a parent took on more work due to illness in the family, Truax said.

‘We can’t slow down’

Nagaoka pointed out that many CPS students live in the communities most affected by COVID-19. Some became essential workers themselves or took on extra hours at jobs they already held while still attending district schools, trying to keep up with remote learning.

Last spring, while a senior at Kenwood, Jackson got a job at Whole Foods and helped support her family when her mom had to leave a job that required her to risk exposure by going door to door. Her mom is working again, but Jackson stayed with Whole Foods, fitting shifts in between college classes and saving up to transfer schools.

Despite feeling encouraged by new data for the class of 2020, the University of Chicago researchers cautioned against assuming enrollment would hold steady for the class of 2021 even as campuses reopen, often with COVID-19 vaccine requirements. Last year’s seniors had in-person relationships with counselors and were already starting to hear back from colleges before the pandemic hit, but this year’s group faced new challenges and largely figured out applications from home, Nagaoka said.

“We can’t slow down,” Nagaoka said. “... Thinking about the CPS students who are seniors right now and have applied to college, are receiving acceptances and are trying to make decisions, you want to acknowledge that it’s been a year of being remote and that poses a lot more challenges than last year.”

She added that the current system could be “re-imagined” to better support students, who along with their parents and educators, need information about potential outcomes for college options they may be considering.

Even after taking college courses in high school, Wells said students could still use more guidance making a plan to graduate with a four-year degree and figuring out which careers matched their skills and interests.

“You kind of want to know what you want to go into and what you want to do before you go to college because it’s a vehicle to transport you to another place, another career,” Wells said. “If you go in not knowing what you want to do, it can really hurt you.”

Yet Smith said, as someone who has already changed her major four times, it’s OK not to know.

“Normalize going into college undecided and taking classes that interest you,” she said. “I truly think it’s crazy to make an 18-year-old figure out what they want to do for the rest of their life.”

Smith, 23, also encouraged students to choose the path that’s best for them and said transferring to Tennessee State University, where she is now a senior, gave her “a sense of feeling at home” that opened more opportunities.

“Changing my surroundings, changing my environment made me see different things,” Smith said.

hleone@chicagotribune.com

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