Chicago State University’s (CSU) recent acknowledgement of an 11 percent graduation rate makes it among the lowest even when compared to similar schools, according to one researcher.
“As an institution who accepts a lot of students who are coming to college ... with backgrounds that indicate they are going to struggle in college ... it’s not surprising that their graduation rates are so low,” Elaine Allensworth, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago told Illinois Business Daily.
With an enrollment of just more than 4,000 in 2014 - 84 percent of whom received Pell Grants - Chicago State University has a student body primed for underperformance, according to data from the National Council for Education Statistics (NCES). In recent years, the school’s graduation rate has hovered between 13 and 21 percent, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Allensworth notes, however, that even among schools with similar student body makeup, CSU ranks particularly low. The school tends to accept students with GPA’s below 3.0, as well as students for whom convenience and money are big considerations in whether to go to school. All of these factors, she points out, are linked to a lower possibility of graduation.
In contrast, she points to Georgia State University, a profile of which The Atlantic in 2013 found the school had increased its graduation rate from 34 to 56 percent over 10 years - below the national average, but well above its peers - despite taking on a similar proportion of students from higher-needs backgrounds.
“(Chicago State) does provide an opportunity for students who maybe can't go to other colleges,” Allensworth said. “Even though it offers those (students) an opportunity to attend, there aren't really the resources there to actually make sure they succeed.”
A scathing editorial on the school's crisis from the Chicago Tribune's editorial board argued that, for years, politicians dumped money into visible improvements to the school, such as new buildings and labs, but put virtually no money into increasing student outcomes.
The school has been facing severe budget problems for a number of years, including a roughly $2,000 per-year cut to the annual tuition rate in 2011. Additionally, a nearly yearlong budget stalemate in Springfield has also hit the school, causing it to cancel spring break this year and cut the spring semester short. In February, CSU leadership asked employees to turn in their keys in anticipation of mass layoffs, yet later told local news outlets that it did not expect to close. The school has since laid off roughly one-third of its staff.
A last-minute $600 million agreement in the legislature has kept Chicago’s public universities, including CSU, afloat through the summer.
Gov. Bruce Rauner also expressed support for a bill from state Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-District 5), which would direct $160 million in special-use funds to keep three state universities afloat, one of which is CSU. Rauner called the funds “excess” and “not needed for their designation.”
Allensworth said CSU doesn’t have to look far to possibly find solutions to its slipping graduation rates. Chicago high schools, she points out, used to have a roughly 50 percent dropout rate until the schools began monitoring data on students and intervening. What experts found, Allensworth said, was that the first year of high school was the “critical” year for ensuring someone graduates or drops out.
“That's when students figure out who they are as learners; they figure out how to handle high school, what it takes; and they also develop mindsets like 'I can do this' or 'I can't do this,'” Allensworth said. “College is like this on a bigger level.”
According to the latest data from NCES, only roughly half of the students who enrolled as freshmen in 2013 returned in 2014.
Allensworth notes that in addition to a lack of resources, a culture of low performance could also affect graduation rates at CSU. Seeing other students working full-time or routinely missing classes and assignments - factors she said are statistically linked to a lower likelihood of graduation - could cause these behavior to become “normal” in new students without intervention. Falling behind, she said, becomes a “downward spiral” if no one steps in.
“You fall behind, maybe you miss a day, no big deal," Allensworth said. "You miss another day, all of sudden you don't understand what's going on. When students fall behind, they get embarrassed and they withdraw further.”