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How to Increase College-Going Rates: Lessons from a Pioneering Program

3E ENROLLMENT LEADERSHIP INSIGHT SERIES

Higher ed has lamented shrinking demographics for a long time—yet very few reports and studies have focused on impacting college-going rates as a path to successful college enrollment. This is a complex and often politicized topic. At Rutgers University, we took this issue head-on.

Rutgers University launched a first-of-its-kind college access program in 2007 that now serves as a blueprint for other campuses.

By Courtney McAnuff, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management, Rutgers University

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When I arrived at Rutgers University in 2006, we didn’t see very many applicants from our home cities—large, urban campuses—and few were admissible. I was tasked with turning that around. An enviable first assignment!

I knew we had to reach these students earlier, and we needed to provide the supports that would help them become admissible—so in early 2007 I wrote the plan to do that (with free tuition in there as a pipe dream). Within days, we had the go-ahead… to start the program that summer. And I had another enviable task: raising the funds to support it.

The Rutgers Future Scholars Program was born.

The program’s inaugural cohort included 50 students from each of our home cities. All were completing their 7th grade year, and we selected participants based on teacher recommendation, an essay, academic promise (not grades), and low-income status.

As Rutgers Future Scholars, they received the opportunity and the resources to help them be successful, with a program that included:

  • Workshops and events throughout the year, theme-based each year
  • On-campus summer programs, up to six weeks each summer
  • Mentoring (academic and personal counseling as necessary)
  • Cohort meetings
  • Seminar series with Rutgers faculty and staff
  • Social and cultural events at Rutgers
  • Upon successful completion of the five-year program, full-tuition funding to Rutgers if they chose to attend

From that first group of 200 students to the now 2400 students in three graduated cohorts, we have shown—and, just as gratifyingly, witnessed—the transformational power of access and education.

Here are three key things to take away from this program.

1. We focused on the community.

Campuses are a reflection of the community, and we have a responsibility to give something back to them. The fact that so few of the students in our own backyard were benefitting from our education was important for us to fix—not just for those students, but also for their families and our community as a whole.

When we started, many in the program hadn’t even been to campus, even though it was a few blocks from home. It simply wasn’t part of their world. I recall bringing the students to campus for a meet-the-president event in that first year. We sent a Rutgers bus to pick each of them up. During the program, I asked a young woman what she liked most about her day. Her response? The bus. When it came down the street, it created a buzz in the neighborhood, everyone coming out and asking why it was there. She was able to say, “For me.

2. We found phenomenal support.

Of course, building a program like this requires financial support, and we have worked hard to secure that—raising a total of $20 million from individual donors and dozens of corporations including AT&T, Merck Pharmaceuticals, and Ernst & Young. The impact of the program has also generated additional backing: five years ago we added a fifth district to the program when an alum of the Rahway School District donated $1.8 million in support of it for that community. Overall, the business community is incredibly supportive. We are now even “old” enough that graduates of the program have given back to it!

Beyond the financials, faculty support for the program is overwhelming—they are inspired by students who get inspired. We also involve our undergraduate students. As many as 700 have taken the class to become program mentors.

And finally, we find immense support—and provide support—to the parents of students participating in the program. All parents want something better for their kids, and we’re here to help them achieve that.

3. We’re achieving results.

Our measure of success is students graduating high school—in areas where, in some cases, you could see rates of 50%. The rate of students in our program? 97%. Nine in 10 go on to college; 6 in 10 go on to Rutgers.

For every cohort of 200, the state of New Jersey saves $30 million between decreased expenditures in social services and increased income tax revenue.

Beyond the numbers, we see a metamorphosis from grades 7 to 12, literally watching lives change.

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How can you apply what we’ve learned?

The only demographic group that’s growing are these students. And they are not prepared. Thus, the only way to ensure your own future will be to ensure pathways to your institution—it will be on you to carve them.

You don’t need to build a program as expansive or expensive as this one, but you can work on initiatives in your backyard and key areas. You want to make it so college isn’t a mythical thing to students who will be rising up through high school in the coming years. Here’s where I’d begin.

Start early for academic success.

Think about high school planning, especially for low income and first-generation students. If they don’t have the right sequence of classes at the end of grade 8 to springboard their high school sequences, they won’t have the curriculum to get into college. This is when it starts. And as part of any program, don’t guarantee admission: it has to be clear to them that they will have to work.

Let them spend time seeing the possibility.

Expose them to campus and show them how academics can translate into all sorts of real-life opportunities. Get them excited. In the first summer session of our program, the rising 8th graders do biology as CSI with the autopsy of a chicken. Other sessions include programming Angry Birds—because you can’t program without math. By 10th grade, they are doing expository writing. You could have them out testing water samples. A community college could do a workshop exposing them to the world of a gourmet chef. Get creative!

Keep the bar in front of them at all times.

Twelve years ago, we created a self-reported academic record that enabled students, starting in eighth grade, to enter their grades. It provides them feedback on whether they’re on track to be a candidate for Rutgers, so they’ll have no surprises and so they can see when they have to adjust. We do not hold them to any different academic standards. Another note—if they complete the program and earn an Associate’s degree within three years, we will honor our tuition promise: once a scholar, always a scholar.

Consider wording about low cost or “free.”

At first glance, the pledge of free college sounds like the expensive part of the program. It isn’t (it’s the pre-college programming). For this population, our (public) tuition would be free anyway. Families didn’t realize that; it simply wasn’t a reality. Being upfront with this takes cost out of the equation and empowers parents to assist in the process.

Depending on your institution, you might not be able to make quite as strong of a claim, but consider, realistically, what the aid situation will look like for these families and how you can get out front with that messaging.

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For so many of us, the call to higher ed is to improve our communities and our world by inspiring and educating new generations of students. It often sounds like an aspirational or lofty goal, but initiatives like these can help us get there.

 

Courtney McAnuff is Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management at Rutgers University in New Jersey and is a member of the 3E Enrollment Advisory Board. The Rutgers Future Scholars Program website can be found here. Rutgers can make a blueprint available for colleges interested in starting a program; that blueprint was funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.