Over the past few years, a number of articles have run in Evanston Roundtable that suggest all Evanston young people should attend, and succeed at, tier I and tier II colleges. While we appreciate the Roundtable’s commitment to high expectations for Evanston students, we are deeply concerned about the assumption that all students should follow the same path – a four-year degree from a competitive college – and that this is the only measure of success. This limited perspective does not acknowledge the diversity in the aspirations and career choices of our youth.

No one can disagree with the proposition that all students should graduate from ETHS with the skills necessary to pursue a path that leads to a successful career and life, but college should be viewed as one pathway, among many, towards achieving such a worthy goal. Students at high schools and, arguably, middle schools, need to be presented with the wide variety of professional career pathway options available to them, including those that do not require a four-year college degree.  

In attending to our young people, we must be prepared to address fundamental questions: How have we served the students who do not wish to attend college? Did we help these students find the professional careers that work best for them? How many of these students would have experienced a greater chance for success had they been empowered to make educated choices about their future careers?  

The Mayor’s Employers Advisory Council, a critical part of Mayor Hagerty’s Elevate Evanston initiative, has spent the last four months learning about a wide range of career opportunities available right here in our own community. These opportunities offer promising careers for those young people who may need or want to work right after, or soon after, high school. These careers can result from internships, apprenticeships, or accreditations, while others may require associate degrees. Each of these offers opportunities for advancement in such worthwhile careers as the trades, health care, manufacturing, banking or infrastructure supports, such as water treatment and management. Careers like these deserve our respect as they contribute essential services to our communities, services that we rely on every day. By employing the “college for all” sentiment, we run the risk of shaming those young people who pursue a career path rather than attend a tier I or tier II college.  

To be clear, we are not suggesting that students shouldn’t attend college; if that is their choice, they should and should graduate from ETHS with the skills to do so. But instead of solely focusing on ensuring students attend more prestigious universities, we, as a community, need to also prioritize ensuring college access is more equitable in the first place. We must work to help remove those barriers which prevent African American and Latinx students from attending college of any kind, let alone tier I or tier II universities. In any case, young people who do not attend four-year college whether for lack of interest, a career choice that is not reliant on a four-year college degree, or circumstances that render college unfeasible, need to be supported in the same manner as college-bound students. While success for some young people may very well be defined by four-year college attendance, it is time we stop defining success by this one measure alone. For many students, success equates to working towards and securing satisfying, meaningful careers that allow them to take pride in their contributions to society, while enabling them to support themselves with a living wage and stay in Evanston after graduation. Such young people deserve our support, our encouragement and our respect. 

Betty Bogg, Executive Director, Connections for the Homeless; Karen Tollenaar Demorest, Executive Director, Youth Job Center;Maggie Blinn DiNovi, Executive Director, Y.O.U.; Sue Farruggia, PhD, Assistant Vice Provost, University of Illinois at Chicago;Neil Gambow, Chair, Mayor’s Employers Advisory Council; Paul Goren, PhD, Superintendent, Evanston/Skokie School District 65; Sheila Merry, Executive Director, Evanston Cradle to Career; Monique Parsons, Executive Director, McGaw YMCA; Marybeth Schroeder, Vice President, Evanston Community Foundation; Ann Sickon, Executive Director, Center for Independent Living; Karen Singer, Executive Director, YWCA Evanston/NorthShore; Joianne Smith, PhD, President, Oakton Community College; Eric Witherspoon, PhD, Superintendent, District 202 

The RoundTable has published a series of editorials in the past few years urging School District 202 to set higher expectations for our students. But contrary to the assertion in the guest essay, we have not argued that all students should attend Tier I and Tier II colleges.

We have argued that our School Districts should educate our students so they have the critical thinking skills they need to gain admittance to and succeed in “very competitive” Tier I colleges or at the very least “competitive” Tier II colleges – if that is the path they choose.

Simply put, our children should not be foreclosed from choosing to go to a four-year “very competitive” or a “competitive” college because our School Districts did not adequately prepare them. Nor should they be foreclosed from choosing a career path because our School Districts did not prepare them.

The guest essay uses the terms Tier I and Tier II colleges to suggest the RoundTable is arguing for too high a goal. ETHS has defined Tier I colleges to include three levels of colleges: the “most competitive,” the “highly competitive,” and the “very competitive.”  It has defined Tier 2 colleges as “competitive” colleges. Tier 3 includes “somewhat competitive” or “open enrollment” colleges.

 As examples, ETHS has identified Northern Illinois University and Northeastern Illinois University as “competitive” Tier II colleges. DePaul University and the University of Illinois at Chicago are identified as “very competitive” Tier I colleges.

Is it too much to ask that District 65 and ETHS prepare students to have the skills needed to gain admittance and to persist in these types of colleges? We do not think so.

We have also argued that the mark of “success” chosen by ETHS – “persisting” for five semesters – sets low expectations. Students may persist from one semester to the next if they have a GPA of 2.0, which is the borderline between passing and failing. Persisting is just getting by. We should expect more.

We fully recognize that many students will choose a path other than a four-year college and that they may do so for a myriad of reasons. As the guest essay points out, college may not even be feasible for many students.  But whether or not students decide to go to a competitive four-year college, they will benefit in today’s and tomorrow’s job market if they have the cognitive thinking skills needed to gain admittance to and succeed in a “very competitive” or at the very least a “competitive” four-year college.

We urge the signatories to the guest essay to urge School Districts 65 and 202 to adopt higher goals for the benefit of all students. Our children deserve better.