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A new hoop for high school graduates to jump through?

Bloomberg View

Getting a high-school diploma in Chicago will soon depend not only on your past grades but also on your future plans. The new requirement is well-intended, but students will need a lot of help to fulfill it.

Starting in 2020, all the city’s public high school seniors will have to present proof of a “post-secondary plan” in order to graduate. Seniors will need to show that they’ve been accepted to college, landed a job or apprenticeship or plan to enlist in the military. Those who fail to do so will be denied a diploma, though the city says it will waive the requirement for students with “extenuating circumstances.”

About 65 percent of Chicago’s students enroll in a two-year or four-year college after graduation. The plan is aimed at the other 35 percent — and could put more at risk.

Most of these students won’t be able to satisfy the graduation requirements by getting a job: only 16.4 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds in Chicago are employed, compared to 28.8 percent nationwide. Students who can’t find work or gain admission to a four-year college could enter the city’s community college system, which admits all who apply. But that could overwhelm a cash-strapped system.

The bigger challenge is helping students complete their studies and obtain meaningful credentials and skills. In Chicago, 76 percent of ninth-graders say they aspire to a four-year college degree, but fewer than one in five ultimately gets one.

Chicago needs to take a more comprehensive approach. That includes investments in programs that help community-college students attend school full-time, which have been shown not just to improve college-completion rates but also generate returns for taxpayers. Devoting more resources to college and career counseling would help to raise high school students’ awareness of their options.

Chicago can also learn from other large school systems, such as the state of Louisiana’s, that have partnered with the business sector to strengthen career and technical education programs and increase the numbers of students leaving high school with industry-recognized skills.

The good news is that Chicago’s school system — and its students — have three years to prepare for these new graduation requirements. The city should use that time to focus less on punishing students for failing to plan ahead than on providing them with the tools necessary to build their futures.

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