In Chicago’s massive, troubled, and increasingly creative public-school system, the lines between high school and college are blurring. If the city’s hard-driving mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has his way, they will soon vanish entirely. “We are going to be the first city that has figured out how to make 12th grade a pit stop on your education rather than your destination,” he said in an interview.
It’s an ambitious goal for a city that fewer than 10 years ago graduated only about half the kids who started in its high schools. But, with graduation rates now rising, Emanuel has launched an integrated series of initiatives to guide more of Chicago’s mostly African-American and Hispanic high school students toward extending their education. The plan aims to make the transition from high school to postsecondary education as seamless as the move from middle school to high school is today. Each of Chicago’s programs, Emanuel said, “is trying to scratch a similar itch: making your high school kids focus … on what’s next, making what’s next relevant to what they want to do in their lives, and then finding different ways to continually help them access it.”
The case for helping more students obtain training beyond high school in places like Chicago is a matter not only of social equity but also of national competitiveness. The best projections suggest that members of minority groups—who already represent most public-school students nationwide—will provide all of the workforce’s net growth in the years ahead. But African-Americans and Hispanics still badly trail whites and Asian-Americans in completing college. Brookings Institution demographer William Frey predicts that, if that gap persists, the workforce’s overall share of college graduates will soon start to decline. That’s not a formula for global success in the information age.