Address by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., to Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic high school principals

October 11, 2007

Welcome to DePaul.

I have enormous respect for the work you do. You educate students’ minds. You show them the world in all its complexity and wonder. You also educate their hearts. You connect the world they see with a larger universe suffused with grace and God. It’s important work.

Attendance at your schools is the single best predictor of involvement in the Catholic Church later in life. Your work builds the church for another generation and beyond. Your work gives students something to believe in and hold on to through the tumultuous life ahead of them: faith, purpose, ethics, direction, love for God and neighbor. Those are extraordinary gifts to give the next generation.

And you do that with adolescents! That’s truly worthy of respect. God knows, these are not the questions they are immediately wrestling with as they wonder if they fit in socially, or will ever attract attention from a love interest, or try to become independent in fits and starts and manage complex home lives in the process. And you do all this with lean resources and long days.

I respect the mission of the public schools, but you have something richer. You get to educate the whole person for a truly fulfilling and meaning-filled future. And so, I’m especially honored that you would choose to meet here at DePaul University today for your conversations.

Today, I’d like to focus on something a bit more modest than this great mission. I simply want to look at bachelor's degree attainment. What does it take to get a 14-year-old a college degree? I want to show you a really interesting piece of research about that; tell you what DePaul is doing in response to that research; and then suggest ways in which you might assist us so that your students more effectively go on to attain a college degree.

So that’s the outline today. A word about the research. A word about DePaul. And a word about you—or more precisely, a word about what we see about your graduates when they come to DePaul. But all of this in service of the larger question: How can we get 14-year-olds a college degree?

My doctorate is in educational administration, it’s a Harvard research degree, and my bachelor’s degree was in mathematics, so let’s just admit this up front, I’m a data geek. I look for numbers when I want to understand something. So does Cliff Adelman. Cliff has been working at the U.S. Department of Education on research activities for decades. In that capacity, he uses students’ high school transcripts and college transcripts from across the nation and runs large, multivariate studies to see what makes the difference for student success. He’s the guru of educational research based on national data. None of these small, school or district-based studies for him. He looks at the country, and thus people take his results seriously.

Here’s what he’s found about our question: What does it take for a 14-year-old to get a college degree?

  • He found that grade point averages are not good predictors.
  • He found that test scores are not good predictors.
  • He found that race is not a good predictor.
  • He found that socio-economic status is not even a good predictor.​

All of these traditional predictors disappear if you look at something else that is a far better predictor of whether students will actually get their college degree. Those predictors are math classes in high school and attendance in college.

Actually, it’s a bit more than just math class. In his study and its follow-up study, “Answers in the Toolbox: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment,” Adelman talks about academic resources as the best predictor.

What he means is that nothing predicts getting a college degree as much as what courses students took in high school, the quality of those courses and how well they did in those courses. When you combine that with continuous enrollment in college (regardless of when a true start has been made in college), you can explain 43 percent of the variation of whether or not students will succeed. Once you’ve accounted for high school courses and continuous attendance, race disappears as a factor completely. Completely.

So let’s look at high school curriculum for a moment. What makes the difference for whether 14-year-olds get a college degree?

Adelman divided high school transcripts nationally into 40 groupings, ranging at the low end from transcripts with mostly gut courses to transcripts with three or more math courses, two or more science courses, two or more English-writing courses, two or more social studies courses.

Of all pre-college curricula, the highest level of mathematics one studies in secondary school has the strongest continuing influence on bachelor's degree completion. Finishing a course beyond the level of Algebra 2 (for example, trigonometry or pre-calculus) more than doubles the odds that a student who enters post-secondary education will complete a bachelor's degree. Taking Advanced Placement courses is more strongly correlated with bachelor's degree completion than it is with college access.

The impact of a high school curriculum of high academic intensity and quality on degree completion is far more positively pronounced for African-American and Latino students than any other pre-college indicator of academic resources. The impact for African-American and Latino students is also much greater than it is for white students.

For colleges, it turns out that continuous enrollment in college is the single best predictor of college degree attainment. But it needn’t be at the same college. Sixty percent of students now attend two or more colleges before they get their bachelor's degree. Switching colleges does not appear to have an effect on degree attainment. But continuous enrollment does.

Remedial courses, it seems, are deadly for college degree attainment. They not only slow students down, but they are a major predictor of whether or not students will get a degree at all.

Thirty-nine percent of four-year college students who were assigned to remedial reading courses completed bachelor's degrees, compared with 60 percent of students who took only one or two other types of remedial courses, and 69 percent of those who were not subject to remediation at all.

Math continues to make a difference in college. Students who take college-level math as early as possible, no matter what their eventual major, are more likely to graduate with a degree.

The most important fuel for academic progress during the first year of college is finishing the year with 20 or more credits. “Twenty turned out to be the magic threshold in both the original Toolbox and Toolbox Revisited,” says Adelman. This includes credits earned during the summer, in dual-enrollment courses in high school or regular college courses. Students who attend four-year colleges and who earn fewer than 20 credits in their first calendar year of post-secondary experience severely damage their chances of graduation. For students who cross the 20-credit line in the first year, 78 percent earned a degree.

Continuous enrollment, academic preparation and early academic performance prove to be what counts in college.

So let me tell you a bit about DePaul for a moment—who are we right now and what we’re going to do next. DePaul’s the largest private university in the Midwest and the largest Catholic university in the nation. We have nine colleges, six campuses in Chicago and the suburbs and offer full degrees in seven nations outside the United States.

DePaul was always known as the “Little School under the El,” and we’ve chosen to remain “small” by refusing to build large classrooms and keeping our average class size to 22 students. We want our students to succeed, and we want our faculty to know them by name.

We are strong in all the ways that any university is strong. But we have an additional set of commitments that show themselves in our programs and policies. We have, for example, one of the top programs in the nation to assist students with learning disabilities to succeed in college. We are the first and only university with formal programs to assist the chronically ill to succeed in college.

We purposely focus our financial aid on first-generation students who are the first in their families to go to college. They make up more than a third of our students body, and we’re quite proud of that in a city filled with immigrant families. We actively and purposely build a diverse freshman class each year, and we are proud that. Of all the many universities that Chicago Public School students attend, DePaul is where they are statistically most likely to graduate.

In short, we have St. Vincent de Paul’s name over our door. St. Vincent’s concern to help everyone succeed in life—especially those with fewer advantages—is alive and well among our faculty and staff. We brag about all the same national academic rankings that any university achieves, and we’re proud to be considered among the Midwest’s great universities. But we’re most proud of this inner drive to help students succeed.

And thus, we’ve been working a great deal lately on helping students succeed. Consistent with Cliff Adelman’s discoveries, we’re focusing on continuous enrollment, raising the academic bar of our coursework and lessening the impact of remedial courses. We’re redesigning all of our “gateway courses.” Sometimes known as “killer courses,” these are the courses that students take, do poorly in and then drop out of college. They include calculus, organic chemistry, economics, accounting and more. We’re not lowering the standards—in fact we’re simultaneously raising them—but we’re finding more effective ways to deliver them so that students succeed.

Toward that same end, we are trying to find ways to help students who come unprepared and must take remedial courses. Because we now know that remedial courses are strongly associated with not finishing college, we have decided to offer our remedial courses free if students will agree to take them the summer before their freshman year. If students wait until September, then we’ll charge them the full tuition rate. It’s our way of incentivizing students to catch up and get on track quickly so that they get their degrees.

There’s much more. We’ve completely redesigned student advising. We’re developing a major writing center that can serve all students even as we raise the writing requirements in the university. You get the idea. Higher standards than ever, with more assistance than ever.

What then do we need from you? Cliff Adelman’s great insight is that 14-year-olds need both of us to successfully attain a college degree. You already have a great deal going for you as institutions. Our admissions staff likes your guidance counselors. This comment I received in a recent e-mail is typical: “Overall, the guidance counselors at the Catholic high schools really advocate for their students, so it’s nice that the students have such support.”

Students from your schools regularly talk about their faith in their admission applications and in the questions they ask when visiting campus, so their Catholic identity is clearly important to them. We also see a real commitment to community service with these students, so their values are similar to those in our mission.

Twenty-one percent of DePaul’s freshmen are graduates of your Catholic high schools. Twenty-six percent of those are students of color, and 20 percent have family incomes of $35,000 or less—so you send us a very diverse population in both racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.

Students from Chicagoland Catholic high schools tend to have comparable overall GPA’s after one year at DePaul vs. their non-Catholic counterparts (3.30 vs. 3.46). But six-year graduation rates tend to be a bit lower for students from Chicagoland Catholic high schools compared to their non-Catholic peers (61 percent vs. 66 percent) And that’s a problem.

If you’re willing to take a long hard look at this, I think there’s an opportunity here for you. Right now, you are not all that different from your public peers when it comes to Cliff Adelman’s question: How do we get 14-year-olds to graduate from college? If you’d like to join us at DePaul in working to increase the chance of student success, I’d encourage you to focus hard on your students’ academic portfolio by the time they arrive at college.

Many of your students do not take mathematics beyond Algebra 2; and in some cases your Algebra 2 courses are closer in content to Algebra 1.

In Adelman’s study, 95 percent of students who completed a high school curriculum at the highest levels of academic intensity earn a bachelor’s degree. It makes a huge difference if you focus on your students’ curriculum. It makes a particular difference for your students of color. Adleman’s study looks specifically at what curricular intensity and quality do for African-American and Latino students, and the difference is stunning.

In Adelman’s national study, if you give a student a mathematics course beyond Algebra 2, a white student’s chance of graduating from college rises from 75 percent to 86 percent. A black student’s chance of graduating from college rises from 45 percent to 72 percent. A Latino student’s chances rise from 60 percent to 79 percent. Those are stunning numbers—and worth all the effort you can put into getting them that kind of education.

It’s not only about math, of course. Other courses are important for your students. But when it comes to college graduation, Adelman says that the combination of getting beyond Algebra 2 in math and taking three Carnegie units in core laboratory science (biology, chemistry, physics) is more critical than taking three units in foreign language or Advanced Placement classes, even though Advanced Placement courses contribute to the highest level of academic intensity in a high school curriculum.

Adleman also is quite clear that, “It is not enough to count Carnegie units in broad subject areas; it is necessary to know what is actually taught in particular courses and whether it matches the demands for entry-level courses in two- and four-year colleges.” Good courses, not just courses.

So, let me finish were I started—with my respect for what you do.

We’re partners in the end. We’re both trying to offer our students a successful path to college degree attainment, but so much more besides. Thank you for all you do for these young men and women. And thank you for your partnership. I look forward to the ways we will continue to work together for these young men and women. It’s difficult to think of more honorable work in this life.

God bless you. And God bless your schools.​​​​