Chicago Charter Schools Are Bridging the City’s College Divide

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A college degree matters more than ever in today’s economy, and bridging the gap in college enrollment isn’t just an equity issue—it’s also an economic development issue. According to a recent report from Georgetown University, virtually all of the 11.6 million new jobs that have been created since the great recession have gone to workers with at least some college education and 72 percent of these jobs went to workers with at least a bachelor’s degree. Rapid economic change has also had a dramatic impact on the American workforce. For the first time, the report found that college graduates made up the largest portion of the workforce at 36 percent. Workers with at least some college education made up 34 percent of the workforce and those with a high school diploma or less made up just 30 percent. 

In 2015-16, enrollment at Chicago charter high schools surpassed 28,000 students—or more than a quarter of the city’s enrollment in grades nine through twelve. A new report by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) found that Chicago charter public schools serve more disadvantaged students than district run schools, yet charter school graduates are 20 percent more likely to enroll in college.

Chicago charter schools aren’t simply delivering above-average results, they’re producing student outcomes on par with the city’s most competitive high schools. In 2015-16, half of the city’s top 20 public schools for college enrollment were charter schools. However, the 10 charter schools that cracked the top 20 list were far more diverse than the 10 district run schools. In fact, these 10 charter schools served far more Black and Latino students (97 percent versus 59 percent), low-income students (88 percent versus 41 percent), and special needs students (14 percent versus 7 percent).

In addition, charter schools are producing results across large sections of Chicago. Twenty years after they were founded, Chicago’s charter high schools have made significant progress in a decades-long effort to eliminate the achievement gap between traditionally underserved students and their better-resourced peers. Using publicly available 2015-16 data, INCS found that:

  • Charter school graduates were 20 percent more likely to enroll in college. Seventy-three percent of charter school graduates enrolled in college, leading the district-run high school average of 61 percent by 12 points. Charter high schools outperformed the statewide college enrollment rate by five percentage points.
  • In 83 percent of Chicago’s neighborhoods with charter high schools, a charter school reported the community’s highest college enrollment rate. Charter high schools had the highest college enrollment rate for graduates in 19 of the 23 communities with available data.

Other studies of Chicago charter schools have found similar results. A recent article by Matthew Davis of the University of Pennsylvania and Blake Heller of Harvard University, “Raising More than Test Scores,” looked at the long-term outcomes of attending the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago. Using experimental and nonexperimental approaches, the authors found that attending one of Noble’s schools had a significant and positive impact on ACT scores, high school graduation rates, college enrollment, college quality, and college persistence. Across Chicago, INCS found that students at Chicago’s charter high schools were one percent more likely than their peers at district schools to graduate in four years and two percent less likely to drop out.

By relentlessly focusing on preparing students to succeed in college, charter schools are leveling the playing field for underserved students—but more research on the long-term impacts on attending charter schools is needed. Bridging the divide in college enrollment and graduation between advantaged and disadvantaged students has profound implications. It is well known that a good education can change the trajectory of a young life, but it can also change the economic trajectory of our country.

Kevin Hesla is the Director of Research and Evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.