University launches initiative to close college attainment gap

The University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute and Network for College Success are launching a new initiative to help more Chicago high schoolers graduate from college, anchored by a first-of-its-kind online data tool for schools and families.

The To&Through campaign combines publicly available research and data on key milestones for students to attain a college degree with school-level training and resources. Its goal is to close the college attainment gap that exists in Chicago and across the country.

“The University of Chicago is committed to developing the understanding needed to help improve educational outcomes at schools in Chicago and nationwide,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “This new tool makes valuable information easily and freely available in order to help schools and families prepare our city’s students for college success.”

The To&Through campaign launched at a Sept. 20 event at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago, where Zimmer was joined by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, leaders from the Urban Education Institute and Network for College Success, and officials from the Chicago Public Schools.

A vast majority of U.S. high school students aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree, yet only 22 percent are projected to earn one within 10 years of finishing high school. In Chicago, 76 percent of freshmen say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 18 percent are expected to do so within a decade of starting at a public high school.

Historically, data on the milestones that matter most to high school and college success have not been in one place or widely accessible. To&Through’s new online data tool makes available school-level information on the five milestones identified by the UChicago’s Consortium on School Research, from on-track performance as a high school freshman to college graduation rates. The tool aggregates more than a decade of information, linking high schools to college outcomes for the first time for Chicago Public Schools.

District and school leaders, school partners, families and policymakers will be able to use the tool for a variety of purposes including examining patterns of educational attainment among different student groups, understanding how individual high schools are doing on a particular milestone, and determining graduation rates for city students at individual colleges and universities.

“In Chicago we have clearly seen that when good, actionable evidence is in the hands of practitioners, parents and policymakers, we can dramatically improve outcomes for young people,” said Tim Knowles, chairman of the Urban Education Institute. “The launch of the To&Through campaign makes essential data and tools available to all education stakeholders in Chicago—and creates a model for the nation—as we aim to propel thousands more students to and through college.”

The new campaign will include ongoing training on how to use the research and data to improve student outcomes. The Network for College Success, which is housed at the University’s School of Social Service Administration, will work with school leaders on how to use the data to develop strategies for moving more students to and through high school and college.

Already the approach has accelerated improvement at schools like Chicago’s George Washington High School, which had a college enrollment rate well below the district average at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, when it started working with the Network for College Success.

Through the partnership, school officials took a series of steps around college attainment, including the creation of a post-secondary leadership team, which recruited teachers to host one-on-one and small group conferences with students about planning for college and career. The high school focused on improving communication with families and created alerts for students with GPAs below of 3.0—a key threshold that is indicative of college readiness and predictive of college success. Washington’s college enrollment rates increased dramatically, to 59 percent in 2014-15 from 35 percent in 2012-13.

While To&Through is a Chicago-based campaign, the ultimate goal is changing the odds around college attainment in cities across the country.

"Chicago—with the right research, data, and training—has moved thousands more students to and through high school and college. As a nation, we can move millions," said Duncan, who is managing partner of the Emerson Collective.