Schwartz: New CPS graduation requirement puts underprivileged students at a further disadvantage

Alex Schwartz, Columnist

On Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new graduation requirement for Chicago Public Schools: Students must have either a job offer or an acceptance letter to a college, trade school or gap-year program lined up by the end of their senior year. The requirement is set to begin with the current class of 2020.

To those of us who are privileged enough to have expected some sort of college acceptance during senior year of high school, this initially seems like a logical measure to set in place. We’ve been conditioned to see high school as a stepping stone to higher education and, eventually, a skilled career.

But for low-income and minority students, that’s more of a dream than an expectation. Only 10 percent of students attending one of U.S. News & World Report’s top 30 universities come from families making less than $30,000 per year. The system of higher education was built for those on the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Only recently have programs emerged that focus on providing these students access to prestigious universities. In other words, we still have a long way to go before students of all backgrounds are able to attend the college of their choice.

Emanuel’s requirement downplays the systemic inequalities of higher education and employment in this country. This requirement may not have much of an effect on students with the time, connections and resources to secure a college acceptance or job after high school. But for those toward the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, it is much more difficult to apply to college. This is especially true in Chicago Public Schools, where security personnel outnumber guidance counselors.

While it is true that the City Colleges of Chicago provide guaranteed acceptances for two-year degrees to CPS graduates, undocumented students who don’t qualify for federal aid may be unable to afford transferring from community college to a four-year university. Additionally, City Colleges could also face funding and capacity issues if they experience an influx of CPS students.

This proposed graduation requirement is steeped in privilege and classism. It ignores the concrete problems that low-income and minority students face when transitioning from high school to college or the workforce. Though it may be well-intentioned, it has the potential to create even more problems for CPS students instead of solving their existing ones.

In his statement, Emanuel provided no specific plan to bolster guidance counseling or to provide more resources for students to find jobs or schooling after graduation; he only mentioned that CPS would make students aware of scholarships and resources available. If Emanuel truly wants to help CPS students, he should focus on providing extra funding and support to schools. This would allow schools to give more guidance to students, who in turn would be able to feasibly find a path for themselves after high school. Rather than supporting students, Emanuel’s requirement takes an inefficient top-down approach that expects students to be able to work against a system that already puts them at a disadvantage.

Chicago has been the subject of a great deal of criticism from the political sphere, whether it’s for gang violence or high school graduation rates. Many of those who talk about “fixing” this city don’t seem to understand the people who live here, and rather than using their privilege to help them, they exacerbate systems that put Chicago residents at a disadvantage. It won’t be easy to “fix” Chicago’s public school system, but creating a goal for CPS students to achieve without giving them the tools to do so is definitely not the way to do it.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.