When students start school in the United States, they tend to proceed along one of two paths. For many, college is the assumed destination from their earliest days in the classroom, reinforced progressively at every step of their education. The only mystery is what higher-education institution they’ll attend. But for a vast set of students, there is no assumed destination except adulthood—school will be a fact of life until it simply isn’t any longer, and at that point, they’ll have to figure out what comes next.

There’s a growing divergence between the outcomes of these two types of students. The pay gap between college grads and those who don’t have a college degree is at an all-time high: According to 2015 data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute, college graduates on average earn 56 percent more than those who only have a high-school diploma. It’s increasingly likely that students without a degree or an alternative won’t merely struggle to find work, but that they will drop out of the workforce altogether.

In April, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel laid down a mandate: Every public-school student in Chicago must have a destination in order to receive their high-school diploma. In other words, all Chicago Public Schools and public-charter-school students must have a postsecondary plan in order to graduate. The idea is to ensure not only that the estimated 40 percent of CPS students without a plan don’t end up on the streets once they leave high school but also that they’re equipped with the know-how to fulfill their goals. A symbolic plan or verbal commitment won’t suffice. Students will need to present their school with an authorized document confirming their plan is being put into action, whether it’s a college or trade-school admissions letter or a signed agreement affirming they are enlisting in the military or have been hired for a job. Shortly after Emanuel announced the mandate, it was approved by the district’s school board. It will go into effect with the class of 2020, making CPS the first school district in the United States to have such a requirement, according to district officials.

To Emanuel, the mandate is urgently needed to address a grave problem in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, where unemployment is widespread and violence seems unavoidable. The mayor’s critics say the rule will make things much worse for people who are already struggling; the last thing Chicago’s students need is another hurdle in the way of a high-school diploma. But the scary truth, Emanuel argues, is that a diploma is no longer enough. …

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