The City Where Diploma Dreams Go to Die

Originially appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Commentary | November 1, 2009

Does Chicago have the worst public higher-education system in America?

There's precedent for that kind of condemnation. In 1988, U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett called the city's elementary and secondary schools the "worst in the nation." People noticed. The next two decades brought a wave of reforms and improvement that eventually elevated Arne Duncan, chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2009, into Bennett's old job.

Yet during that time, the city's sprawling system of colleges and universities received nothing like the same scrutiny. Now we're seeing the result. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that Chicago State University was at risk of losing accreditation because of various "grave" concerns, the accreditor said, including "remarkably poor" graduation rates.

The news couldn't—or shouldn't—have come as a surprise. According to Chicago newspapers, Chicago State's enrollment has declined by more than 30 percent since 1994, and its finances are in disarray. The previous president resigned after audits uncovered $15,000 in spending on a nine-day Caribbean cruise for herself and five family members. In the past 12 years, the university reported six-year graduation rates of 12, 15, 22, 12, 16, 18, 15, 14, 16, 18, 16, and 13 percent. The odds of Chicago State's having a not-horrible graduation rate in a given year are about as good as the odds of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.

To be sure, the university enrolls many part-time students with academic deficits and financial difficulties. The eight-year graduation rate is 27 percent, which is better, but still pretty bad. Other urban universities get closer to half of all students through, if not more. And a recent study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that completion rates for well-prepared students attending Chicago State are as much as 40 percent lower than for similar students attending better colleges.

Chicago State is hardly alone. The graduation rate for black students at Northeastern Illinois University, in Chicago, is 4 percent. Even the Chicago branch of the University of Illinois graduates fewer than half of its students in six years. Malcolm X College, a two-year institution, has a combined graduation and transfer rate of 36 percent, and other city colleges have similar results.

Outside of its elite private institutions, Chicago is the city where dreams of college graduation go to die. And the same can be said for other cities nationwide.

I wonder what Arne Duncan thinks about this. After all, those are his students washing out en masse, young men and women he worked night and day to nurture through high school and into the supposed promised land of college. Since becoming secretary of education, Duncan has repeatedly denounced the "dropout factories" in urban school systems, high schools that routinely fail to graduate most of their students. What about the dropout factories in higher education? They serve the same students in the same places, and are performing even worse.

To its credit, the Obama administration has proposed spending tens of billions of new dollars on Pell Grants, community colleges, and an Access and Completion Fund. But as now designed, those reforms won't be nearly enough to turn things around in cities like Chicago. The proposals lack the sharp edge and urgency of Duncan's approach to failing high schools, about which he has said, "We cannot continue to tinker" as "students fall further behind, year after year."

Nor can we rely on accreditation to protect students. For every Chicago State on the hot seat, dozens of institutions persist with similar failure rates. (And I'm willing to bet Chicago State will, too.) Minimum institutional standards for student success are, to the extent they even exist, shockingly low. The voluntary accreditors assigned to protect students and taxpayers are hamstrung by a lack of resources and by strong deference to the colleges that support them financially. They are loath to invoke the "death penalty": cutting off access to the federal financial-aid system. And when they do take action, they are increasingly being taken to court, as was recently the case with Paul Quinn College (graduation rate: 17 percent), in Dallas.

Accreditors often say that their malleable standards are a function of our higher-education system's broad diversity, that one cannot evaluate different colleges in the same way. But catastrophic failure rates are a problem for any college. In reality, the accreditation system has evolved over time to accommodate diversity in quality to an almost infinitely elastic degree.

The accreditation system also provides little useful information to potential students. The letter detailing the "grave concerns" about Chicago State is unavailable on the Web site of either the university or the accreditor. Instead, the front page of the university's site features a letter to students from the provost, saying, "I want to reassure you that CSU is fully accredited." The worst part is, it's true.

Most states have taken a similar hands-off attitude, refusing to hold colleges accountable in any meaningful way for helping students learn and earn degrees. They support institutions based on how many students enroll, not how many succeed. The chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently resigned amid a scandal related to secret admissions preferences for children of the politically well-connected. I am unaware of any chancellor's ever resigning because of the scandal of terrible failure rates for disadvantaged students.

These attitudes are rooted in a strange but pervasive idea about college success: that once students reach the age of majority, their institutions have no control over-and thus, responsibility for—whether they succeed. Of course, students' actions, motivation, and preparation strongly influence achievement and graduation. But colleges matter, too—a lot. At least, I hope they matter. Otherwise what are we paying them for?

Indeed, the question of whether Chicago's public colleges are actually the worst or merely not good enough is hard for many people to process, because words like "worst" aren't in the vocabulary of how we think and talk about higher education. A subtle but powerful rhetorical logrolling is at play: Despite all evidence to the contrary, people like to pretend that there is a good college for everyone, and that every college is good for someone. We have an excess of politeness and a deficit of candor in our discussions of higher education. As a result, public leaders in Chicago and elsewhere have turned a blind eye to dysfunctional institutions in the heart of their communities. Students are paying the price.

And until education leaders like Arne Duncan take the same attitude toward chronic failure in college that they have so admirably adopted on behalf of the most vulnerable students in our high schools, that's not going to change.

More in Accountability