As a college counselor at a Chicago high school, my job is to help students and their families discover an affordable and compelling pathway to a college education. Most of my students come from low-income backgrounds, and many aspire to be among the first in their family to graduate from college. Money is a big deal, and so is a fear of the unknown.
The Star Scholarship at the City Colleges of Chicago should therefore be a tempting opportunity for many of my students, and it is. But the scholarship’s appeal threatens to lead students down the wrong path.
The scholarship was created by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to address problems at two school systems he controlled: the city’s public schools, and its public colleges. Emanuel was under dual pressure, to increase high school graduation and college enrollment rates, and to increase the number of students enrolled in the City Colleges system.
When he took office in 2011, total enrollment at the City Colleges exceeded 60,000 students. By the fall of 2015, the number had declined to 50,000. That’s when Emanuel created the Star Scholarship. Chicago Public Schools graduates with a high school GPA of 3.0 or above and around a 900 on the SAT qualify for the program, which promises free tuition, book stipends, and the possibility of benefiting from both transfer partnerships and future scholarship guarantees.
The program has expanded and gained popularity, and the city boasts that almost 50% of the initial cohort of Star Scholars graduated within three years.
Why tout a 50% graduation rate? Because it’s better than the usual outcomes for students there. The Illinois Community College Board pegs the overall graduation rate of the City Colleges of Chicago — where most Chicago graduates who enroll in community college wind up, about 3,000 a year — at less than 20% for first-time, full-time students. Indeed, most students I’ve helped enroll at the City Colleges have struggled to work towards a degree.
So the Star Scholarship should represent a promising opportunity for my students. Better outcomes for free — it’s a deal that any college counselor should want for his or her students, right?
Wrong. My students who take advantage of the Star Scholarship are precisely the ones who have other affordable college opportunities from which they are much more likely to graduate. I’m thinking of an aspiring engineer who could have easily afforded an offer from a state university two years ago. I’m thinking of a young woman who was a well-rounded student and athlete who turned down an affordable opportunity last May to go to Illinois State.
When students embrace the Star Scholarship, they immediately reduce their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree. For Chicago Public Schools graduates who first enroll in a two-year college, the likelihood that they will attain a bachelor’s degree within six years has remained virtually constant at 8%. (That’s not a typo.)
Nationally, students with similar academic qualifications graduate with bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than Star Scholars graduate with associate’s degrees.
In other words, the Star Scholarship reroutes high-achieving students into a pathway from which fewer than half of them will earn a two-year degree. Meanwhile, their similar peers are more likely to earn a four-year degree by charting their own course.
The financial value of the Star Scholarship is also deceptive. The program does not pay the tuition of economically needy students who are eligible for full financial aid from both the state and federal governments. Instead, government grants do — the same grants that a student could have used to enroll elsewhere. And the Star Scholarship doesn’t kick in until the student’s government grants have already been applied, or when students are not eligible for government aid in the first place.
To avoid the deceptive allure of the City Colleges, students have to be aware of how to access college options that are more likely to help them earn a degree. That requires a renewed focus on comparative graduation rates, financial aid, and access to merit scholarships.
Of the students I work with, the only true beneficiaries of the Star Scholarship are undocumented students who are not eligible to apply for financial aid at all. Otherwise, Star Scholars are most often the students whose academic qualifications and financial means should have allowed them to enroll in a college with much higher graduation rates. The program tends to send students where they shouldn’t go, with money they don’t need.
This isn’t just a problem for students. While Chicago Public Schools has made extraordinary improvements in its high school graduation and college enrollment rates over the last decade, graduates have not actually been earning college degrees at higher rates than before.
Shoring up enrollment at City Colleges while boosting college enrollment rates certainly helped Emanuel kill two birds with one stone, and may for his successor, Lori Lightfoot, as well. But the city can do better. Doing away with an enticing but ultimately unhelpful scholarship would be an important step.
Andrew Johnson is a national board-certified social science teacher and a college access advisor at George Westinghouse College Prep in Chicago. He has been a public school teacher since 1997.
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