Finding Diamonds

An innovative program at Rutgers University is turning underprivileged inner-city kids into college scholars

Finding Diamonds

An innovative program at Rutgers University is turning underprivileged inner-city kids into college scholars

In 2007, when the Rev. William Howard was head of Rutgers University’s Board of Governors, he noticed a disturbing trend: That year, only 10 students from Camden public schools were enrolled at Rutgers, with similar numbers in the two other Jersey cities that host a campus. This didn’t sit right with Howard and the other governors, who, at a time when the divide between the haves and have-nots is ever widening, could envision their university as an oasis of privilege on an otherwise impoverished landscape. The day was fast approaching when not one local student was enrolled. None of them wanted that to happen.

Camden, New Brunswick and Newark—where Rutgers has its main campuses—have among the state’s highest poverty rates and, predictably, the lowest graduation rates: Camden, 53 percent; New Brunswick, 61 percent; and Newark 67 percent. For many—if not most—students in these cities’ battered public schools, college was inconceivable. But not, as Rutgers proved, impossible.

Future Scholars is a model for other city universities, like Penn or Drexel, that also straddle struggling communities with low-performing schools.

In 2008, the university launched Rutgers Future Scholars with a clear goal: To turn struggling urban students into capable collegians. Under program director Aramis Gutierrez, Future Scholars selected 50 seventh-graders each from Camden, New Brunswick, Newark and Piscataway. (The New Brunswick campus encompasses nearby Piscataway.) All were from a population least likely to get college degrees: They lived at or near the poverty line, and would be the first in their families to finish college. But they all showed some promise—excellent students who lacked confidence, perhaps, or those who were student leaders but didn’t have great grades. Over the next five years, Future Scholars provided tutoring throughout the school year; on-campus summer programming; mentoring; internships; and social services, when needed. In 2013, 98 percent of the Rutgers Future Scholars graduated from high school—and 97 percent went to college. Currently, 98 students from the first Scholars group are enrolled at Rutgers, which waives their $13,000 tuition; another 100 from the second class joined them this fall. There are now 1,400 New Jersey students from seventh graders to college sophomores in the program.

“Institutions of higher education are only as good as the communities we call home,” says Gutierrez. “Rutgers Future Scholars is an example of how higher ed and K-12 can partner to best serve all interests. It is an investment in communities, people and the future.”

Future Scholars proves that it is possible to change the trajectory for underprivileged and underserved urban students, whether in Newark or Philadelphia. As such, it seems to offer a model for other city universities, like Penn or Drexel, that also straddle struggling communities with low-performing schools. But it also makes clear the challenges that go along with such an effort. Rutgers developed Future Scholars with best practices from college access programs across the country, and in partnership with its school districts. Its main focus from the start was creating students who were academically rigorous enough to graduate high school and succeed in college. But it was the non-academic parts of their lives that more often overwhelmed the students. Gutierrez had grown up in inner city Trenton, where he was also a teacher and school counselor for several years. He thought he knew the challenges facing his young students. But he couldn’t anticipate the depth, or frequency, of their needs.

“I might have gone astray without Future Scholars,” says one student. “I was making bad decisions. But then I’d get a call from someone at Rutgers, and they’d set me straight. I needed that to get through.”

Karen Nicolas joined the first Scholars class in New Brunswick, when she was a studious seventh-grader with good grades and good discipline. It seemed like nothing would stop her from becoming the first in her family to go to college. But she says 9th and 10th grades were a struggle. Her parents were getting divorced; she felt torn between them, and found herself drifting in school and getting into the sort of trouble she had always avoided. Fortunately, she had Future Scholars to keep her on track.

“I really think I might have gone astray without Future Scholars,” says Nicolas, an astrophysics major at Rutgers-New Brunswick. “I was making bad decisions. But then I’d get a call from someone at Rutgers, and they’d set me straight. I needed that to get through.”

At the outset, students and their families are asked to sign a contract with Rutgers, agreeing to participate in all Future Scholars programming over the next several years. In return, Gutierrez promises that Future Scholars will always have their backs—even if they move, or otherwise drift away from the program. This has meant a lot of scrambling for Gutierrez and his staff over the years. Parents have lost jobs and homes, sending children to shelters, often in different districts; others have become wards of the state, moving in and out of foster homes. Some have disappeared for a while into gangs; one boy in the first class was killed. At times, Future Scholars has had to raise money for things Gutierrez says the university never expected—like bail money for a father so one student would have a place to live. Over the years, students have scattered to 20 districts around the state. But they are still Future Scholars.

“For a lot of them, we are the one constant in their lives,” says Gutierrez. “We push the idea that we’re a family, and won’t turn our backs on them. We will not dismiss kids from the program. They know that, and even if they drift, they almost always come back.”

Rutgers Future Scholars costs $1.6 million a year to operate, most of which comes from corporate donors like AT&T and Merck. The rest is from foundations and private philanthropists like Steve Colson, a South Jersey construction magnate who has donated nearly $500,000, and also become a mentor to several Scholars. Future Scholars also relies on a cadre of community groups throughout New Jersey to help students with social or emotional issues—from finding a family a new home to mental health counseling. Some of those groups also provide internships for the Scholars, giving them a way to give back to the community.

The first class of graduates finished their first year of college in May, studying a variety of subjects at all Rutgers campuses. They fared, on average, as well as any other Rutgers freshman—around a 2.7 GPA. (The others went to different colleges in and out of the state, and also performed well.) Of that first class of 200, Gutierrez says he lost 13 kids, mostly because they moved out of state. Of those, he has managed to track down 11—all of whom graduated high school. He is still looking for the other two. “I’m not giving up on them,” he says.

Find more information on Rutgers Future Scholars here.

See also: How the city of Buffalo increased its college acceptance rate by nine percent in one year through a concerted community-wide effort led by Say Yes To Education.

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