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Chicago Public Schools class of 2023 earned $2 billion in college scholarships

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, wearing glasses and a gray suit jacket, hugs a teen in a gray sweat jacket. There’s an American flag and one perso in the background.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson hugs Dmariyah Haggard, 18, after speaking at a press conference at Orr Academy High School on Wednesday, June 7, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.

Christian K. Lee / For Chalkbeat

The Chicago Public Schools graduating class of 2023 earned more than $2 billion in college scholarships — a record amount, district leaders and the city’s mayor announced in a Wednesday press conference on the city’s West Side.

That’s compared with about $1.5 billion that graduates pulled in last year. Officials said 9,945 of roughly 22,000 seniors have landed scholarships; about 76% have gotten at least one college acceptance letter. 

In a first for the district, every high school reported earning scholarship dollars, according to a district spokesperson.

The 2023 graduates began their high school careers the school year the pandemic struck and have weathered the abrupt shift to remote learning and an eventual return to in-person instruction disrupted by COVID surges, staffing shortages, and other upheaval.

At Orr Academy High School on the last school day of the year, Mayor Brandon Johnson also nodded to the mass campus closures on the West Side in 2013 that played out as some of the students gathered Wednesday were starting elementary school.

“To the class of 2023, you are making a difference already,” Johnson said. “You are why we will have a better, safer, stronger Chicago.”

Amid a “college for all” push in the 2010s, the district saw marked increases in the portion of students who graduate and go on to higher education institutions. But the district has recently focused its efforts on boosting the portion who actually earn college degrees, which has not budged significantly even as college enrollment spiked. 

According to the most recent analysis by the University of Chicago’s To & Through Project based on 2021 data, 82 of every 100 district freshmen graduate from high school on time. Of those graduates, 37 enroll in a four-year college right away and 13 enroll in a two-year college. Six years later, only 27 of those 100 freshmen earn any college credential.   

Significant college completion disparities by race and gender have persisted. While 67% of Asian American female students — the district’s highest-performing group — will go on to earn a college degree, about 12% of their Black male peers will do the same. 

District graduates are headed to Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and campuses around the world. Some will instead go on to training and apprenticeship programs in skilled trades from culinary arts to construction, amid a district shift toward rebuilding and strengthening its career and technical education offerings.  

“They closed out their freshman year when this whole country was shut down,” Martinez said. “And yet, they never lost a beat.”

He argued that students are graduating better prepared than ever, pointing to a record number who took college-credit courses.

The district credited the scholarship increase to better outreach to students. Its Office of College and Career Success held live information sessions on Instagram, gave schools additional training on helping students navigate the application process, and sent seniors weekly emails with scholarship leads.

The exact number of students who graduated this spring will be available in the fall, the district said. Last year, roughly 21,200 students graduated, with the four-year graduation rate ticking up to a record 82.9%. 

Five members of this year’s graduating class — Paul Adekola of Air Force Academy High School, Alanah Martin of Kenwood Academy, Kevin Reyes Vega of Chicago Military Academy, and Jaylen Brown and Sammi Yee of Whitney Young High School — won the prestigious Gates Scholarship, which will cover their tuition in full at top-ranked universities. 

Orr also doubled its total scholarship amount from last year to roughly $2.2 million. 

Dmariya Haggard, a newly minted graduate who spoke at the press conference, said he struggled in high school as the city grappled with the pandemic and a rise in gun violence. 

But he is heading to Northern Illinois University in the fall, with plans to study biology and $192,000 in scholarships. 

“I wanted to do better for myself and have a better future,” he said.

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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