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Published March 2, 2021

In 1951, American poet Langston Hughes warned of our fate when our dreams go unfulfilled. At Rutgers, one Big Idea proposes how the university can better fulfill the dream of a college education—and what can happen when we do.

When it comes to students, excellence can be found everywhere: every zip code, income bracket, ethnicity, and nationality. Finding excellence and cultivating it to flourish drives our communities, cities, state, and nation forward. Rutgers takes seriously its responsibility to find and empower excellence, including in places where systems and structures have failed. After all, talent has no borders. It is limited only by scarcity of resources, opportunities, and imagination.

For far too long, conventional conceptions of what excellence looks like and the so-called “college experience” have hampered universities’ ability to find and support talented students. These conceptions generally fixate on the time students spend on campus, confining our thinking about college to that space. But at Rutgers, a multidisciplinary team of visionaries seeks to change the mindset and the tools we use to discern talent, as well as how we think about college to better attract and retain a talented and multifaceted student body. “We have a stewardship responsibility to make a difference in the lives of the youngsters and citizens of this state,” says Courtney McAnuff, vice chancellor for enrollment management at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Student-oriented thinking is at the heart of Dreams Fulfilled, a large-scale initiative that leverages new approaches to making education accessible, affordable, and applicable to graduates’ lives beyond college. “We have to address the needs of our students,” says Sherri-Ann P. Butterfield, executive vice chancellor and associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University–Newark. “I tell folks all the time: if we do not address this, New Jersey will not be successful as a state, and we won’t be successful as a country.” The team behind Dreams Fulfilled proposes that, rather than being a monolithic life stage that begins and ends on campus, the college experience begins long before a student sets foot on campus and continues long after students have graduated. This experience manifests different challenges and opportunities for every student, all of which warrant university support. And it extends beyond individual students to their families and lives outside of college. “Not only do we have to educate this child, but we need to—and we should be—bringing the parents along for the process,” says Nyeema Watson, vice chancellor for diversity, inclusion, and civic engagement at Rutgers University–Camden. By thinking about college in terms of longer-term cycles and systems and adopting a student-centered approach, the group intends to address discrepancies in accessibility, affordability, and academic success at Rutgers. In the process, it will model an approach that can be adopted by universities across the nation.

Dreams Fulfilled will equip Rutgers to maximize the intellectual capital of New Jersey’s and the nation’s college-age population by ensuring that all students, including more from underrepresented communities, have the resources and support necessary to complete their degrees within four years and without significant debt, and to achieve postgraduate success. Most of these Rutgers graduates will go on to live and work in New Jersey, supporting its economy and forming the backbone of its communities while becoming the parents and teachers of a new generation. The power of this project is reflected in the students it serves. “I’ve learned that the best way to give back to a community is to invest in its people,” says Marcellus Hill, a 2019 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–Camden. The payoffs of supporting future graduates before and during their time on campus reveal the power of big-picture thinking.

The Big Idea
Dreams Fulfilled is one of 12 Big Ideas leading the charge for Rutgers’ Big Ideas initiative, which is more than two years in the making. In late 2018, Rutgers University invited its 23,000 talented faculty and staff to pitch their most disruptive and visionary proposals for daring initiatives that will positively transform our community and serve as a model for enhancing other communities around the world. From more than 200 proposals, a dozen Big Ideas emerged after a rigorous review and refinement process. One group of administrators, who are now championing Dreams Fulfilled, looked to college accessibility and affordability as a critical place to begin. “The key is thinking about what ‘access’ really means,” says Butterfield. “How have our practices been intentionally or unintentionally keeping certain kinds of students from attaining a college education?”

That’s where Dreams Fulfilled comes in. This broad-scale approach to recruitment, admissions, and student retention harnesses an array of Rutgers programs like Rutgers Future Scholars, Scarlet Promise Grants, Bridging the Gap, academic advising, honors programs, and career services—to accomplish several interconnected goals. It will expand upon existing K-12 programming across New Jersey so that all students can envision themselves in college. It will sharpen the lenses we use to find talent, assuring that we change traditional recruitment and admissions practices that have contributed to perpetuating inequalities in our state and our nation. It will build upon resources that help students apply and get accepted to Rutgers, creating a pipeline of high-achieving New Jersey undergraduates. It will provide those undergraduates with financial and academic support so students can afford and complete their degrees. And it will prepare students for success after graduation through robust alumni engagement.

By unifying several related programs under one initiative, the university can leverage its immensely talented community and expertise to open the bottlenecks where students might get stuck on their way from demonstrating strong grade school aptitude to achieving undergraduate goals and finding meaningful work as members of society and contributors to a vibrant economy. “If you look at the talent that New Jersey has to offer, and then you put side by side the obstacles from decades if not centuries of systemic racism, what becomes the lever to turn that talent into opportunity and into innovation and solutions that dismantle those obstacles?” asks Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark. The team behind Dreams Fulfilled hopes the program can be that lever. The initiative will empower generations of students and make Rutgers an exemplar in higher education, ensuring that employers look to the university as an incubator for the nation’s best and most diverse talent. It’s a win-win-win for students, Rutgers, and our community at large.

Starting Early
Expanding access to a college education doesn’t start when a student applies for enrollment. To make real, systemic change, discussions about college need to begin very early in a child’s education. That’s why the university launched Rutgers Future Scholars in 2007. The program provides talented first-generation eighth graders from Rutgers’ host communities with mentoring, tutoring, and other resources throughout high school. Students accepted to Rutgers University enroll with the assistance of four years of full tuition funding.

Ezekiel Medina, a 2020 graduate of the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers–New Brunswick, exemplifies the power of this long-term approach. “I was in the seventh grade, in a program that Rutgers started…Once I got into that program I was like, ‘Oh, okay, so college is feasible.’” He went on to enroll at Rutgers and double major in public health and Latino and Caribbean studies.

Dreams Fulfilled seeks to expand on the work of programs like Rutgers Future Scholars so more students will find themselves supported, from a young age, along the path to college graduation. “Rutgers Future Scholars is a phenomenal program, but we can and should help even more students,” says McAnuff. “That begins with engaging families as early as the fourth grade.” To that end, McAnuff envisions expanding Rutgers’ existing partnerships with New Jersey K-12 schools to provide high-quality after-school, weekend, and summer programming supported by Rutgers faculty and students who will serve as tutors, workshop facilitators, and mentors.

You might be thinking, why so early? Do kids really need to start thinking about college preparedness in fourth grade? If you ask Watson, the answer is yes—especially for first-generation students. “We want to expose them to college as early as possible so that it becomes a part of the fabric of their education,” she says. “Some students may have had their parents talking about their college experiences, but if your family never experienced that, these conversations don’t happen. Or if they do happen, they hear, ‘I want my child to go to college, but I don’t know how I’m going to afford it.’” That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to think about accessibility and affordability in tandem. Alongside early academic involvement, the Dreams Fulfilled initiative also seeks to lower the financial barriers that too often prevent talented students from obtaining a university degree.

Supporting Student Success
Enhancing college preparedness and acceptance is crucial to boosting the talent pool at Rutgers. So is making degrees financially accessible. The team behind Dreams Fulfilled proposes a visionary approach—one that includes financial support while empowering students, particularly first-generation university attendees, with the knowledge and tools necessary to navigate the sometimes convoluted systems of higher education. “It is important that we disrupt the structures and systems embedded in higher education that would otherwise prevent students from historically underrepresented backgrounds from realizing their full potential,” says Jason Rivera, vice chancellor for student academic success at Rutgers University–Camden. This is especially critical when it comes to financing an education, because many students arrive at Rutgers not knowing how to apply for federal aid and, as a result, a lot of money is left on the table. In fact, completions of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA, which opens the gate to federal grants, loans, and work-study opportunities) decrease by about 4.2 percentage points every year. In addition to expanding on existing grants that help students pay their tuition and other bills, Dreams Fulfilled will also support programs that maximize access to federal and state aid.

Scarlet Promise Grants will be a critical component of this endeavor. In July 2020, Rutgers launched a $10 million focused campaign to fund these grants, which offer need-based financial awards and emergency support to close the gap between financial aid and the actual cost of a college education. That cost goes beyond tuition to include books, food, housing, and more.

Also included in the efforts to make college more affordable are plans to support students with the resources they need to graduate in four years. “A huge obstacle for low-income students is time to degree,” says McAnuff. “So many have to work to get through school, so they may take five or six years to finish their degree. These extra years add significantly to their debt load.” The Dreams Fulfilled initiative will provide new tuition assistance programs to lower the debt burden of Rutgers students. It will expand academic support, advising, and tutoring programs to support students in navigating the intricacies of higher education, managing academic loads alongside their personal lives, and graduating in a timely manner.

Dreams Fulfilled will also enhance career services and connections to help students secure paid internships and externships, envision opportunities to leverage their university experiences to transform their lives, and pivot seamlessly from graduation to successful career paths. “All of this will enable Rutgers to leverage New Jersey’s most precious resource—the breathtakingly diverse new generations among us who are precisely the change makers we need to blaze a trail forward for our state and the nation,” says Drew Kaiden, associate vice president for development at Rutgers–New Brunswick.

Toward a Grander Future
Dreams Fulfilled harnesses the strengths and resources of Rutgers University to truly make college more accessible for a vast pool of exceptional students, beginning in elementary school and continuing through college graduation. It will also position Rutgers as a national model for student achievement. “This can be transformational for the entire state of New Jersey and gets to the heart of what being a land-grant institution really means,” says Watson, “that we’re here for the entire state.”

Accordingly, Dreams Fulfilled will require investment from the entire state to realize the project’s full potential: alumni, friends, donors, local corporations and businesses, public and private schools—all of us. Amid continuing national concerns about college preparation, the high cost of higher education, student debt, and underemployment of new graduates, there is no better investment than our students’ future. “This is not an expense,” McAnuff points out. “This is an investment in the future of the state, the future of these young people, and the future of Rutgers. If we are successful, it will be a blueprint for the nation.”