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Published November 6, 2019

By Melissa Kvidahl Reilly

In 1951, American poet Langston Hughes asked what happens to a dream deferred. 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.

By some metrics, college appears to be more accessible than ever. In 2019, enrollment hit an all-time high, with growth fueled almost entirely by an influx of students of color and those from low-income families. Students today are also more likely to be enrolled in four-year institutions than two-year college programs, suggesting a rise in academic commitment.

But then the pandemic hit. And the cracks were exposed. Not only were low-income students most likely to drop out of college during the pandemic, but they were also most likely to cancel all plans to attend the fall 2020 semester in the first place. And while affluent students can afford to take a gap year during COVID-19, first-generation and low-income college students don’t typically return to campus after a break. While the pandemic didn’t necessarily create the challenges faced by these students, it did expose that record enrollment numbers don’t represent the whole story, and a large swath of students remain on shaky ground.

The Big Idea

Last year when Rutgers University invited faculty and staff to propose their best “Big Ideas.” One group of administrators looked to college accessibility and affordability as an obvious place to begin. “The key is thinking about what ‘access’ really means,” says Sherri-Ann Butterfield, executive vice chancellor and associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University–Newark. “How have our practices been intentionally or unintentionally keeping certain kinds of students from attaining a college education?”

The many ideas behind improving college access and affordability eventually coalesced into Dreams Fulfilled, a bold initiative that harnesses an array of Rutgers programs to create a pipeline of high-achieving New Jersey undergraduates and provide them with the essential academic and financial support they need to graduate within a reasonable timeframe and without excessive debt.

Undoubtedly, this initiative is an investment in the future of countless young people, who will be able to change their lives’ trajectories by attaining a college degree without being saddled with debt. But it is also an investment in the future of our state. Many Rutgers graduates go on to live and work in New Jersey, supporting its economy and forming its communities’ backbone. By unifying several related programs under one initiative, the university can leverage its immense size, scale, and expertise to open the bottlenecks where students get stuck on their way from demonstrating strong grade school aptitude to finding meaningful work as productive members of civil society and contributors to a vibrant economy.

As an academic powerhouse with a uniquely diverse student body, Rutgers has all the necessary pieces to provide more educational opportunities to underserved students. The Dreams Fulfilled initiative will expand upon existing K-12 programming across New Jersey so that all students can envision themselves in college. It will build upon resources that help students apply and get accepted. And it will provide financial and academic support so students can afford their degrees and complete them in four years.

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 on in a child’s education. That’s why the university launched Rutgers Future Scholars in 2007. The program provides high-achieving, low-income and first-generation eighth graders from Rutgers’ host communities with mentoring, tutoring, and more throughout high school. Students accepted to Rutgers University are granted four years of full tuition funding. “Rutgers Future Scholars is a phenomenal program, but we can and should help even more students,” says Courtney McAnuff, vice chancellor for enrollment management at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “That begins with engaging families as early as the fourth grade.”

He envisions expanding Rutgers’ existing partnerships with New Jersey K-12 schools, providing high quality after-school, weekend, and summer programming supported by Rutgers faculty and students who will serve as tutors, workshop facilitators, and, most importantly, mentors.

You might be thinking, why so early? Do kids really need to start thinking about college preparedness in fourth grade? If you ask Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement at Rutgers–Camden Campus, 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 the experience of 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.’” Indeed, alongside early academic involvement, the Dreams Fulfilled initiative also seeks to lower the financial barriers that exist for so many students.

Financial Assistance

After college preparedness and acceptance comes the added hurdle of affordability. And the bad news is that college is as unaffordable as ever. One study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that students with a high household income (over $160,000) can afford to attend about 90 percent of colleges; among students with household incomes less than $69,000, just one to five percent of colleges are affordable. Partially because of this, about 40 percent of students in the US attend a less selective college than they’re qualified to attend.

One problem is that students don’t know how to apply for federal aid and, as a result, a lot of money is being left on the table. In fact, completions of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (which opens the gate to federal grants, loans, and work-study opportunities) decrease by about 4.2 percentage points every year. In addition to supporting programs that maximize access to federal and state aid, this Big Idea will also expand on existing grants that help students pay their tuition and other bills. In July 2020, for example, Rutgers launched a $10 million focused campaign to fund Scarlet Promise Grants, need-based financial awards and emergency support that close the gap between financial aid and the actual cost of a college education, which goes beyond tuition to also include books, food, housing, and more. This is important, as The Hope Center estimates that 45 percent of students are food insecure, and 56 percent of students are housing insecure. A whopping 17 percent of students are homeless.

Included in the plan to help make college more affordable is supporting students with the resources they need to graduate in four years. Though Rutgers–New Brunswick’s six-year graduation rate is 80 percent, the four-year rate is only 60 percent (at Rutgers–Newark, it’s 66/44 percent; at Rutgers–Camden, it’s 58/27 percent). “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 help students graduate in four years. And it will enhance career services and connections to help students pivot seamlessly from graduation into the economy.

The Goal

In all, this Big Idea harnesses the strengths and resources of Rutgers University to truly make college more accessible, beginning in elementary school and continuing through college graduation. “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.” Dreams Fulfilled will take investment from the entire state to truly make a difference: alumni, friends, donors, local corporations and businesses, public and private schools—all of us.

Rutgers has a historical commitment to providing educational opportunities to underserved students, many of them the first in their families to attend college. Amid continuing concern 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.”