Low-income families have to deal with priorities other than education. With the increasing expense of college, children in these families rarely view college enrollment and attendance as an option. Degrees are out of reach. Often, the children fall into the category of those who are not encouraged to pursue bachelor’s degrees — after all, for the economy to function properly, society needs all types of labor, including unskilled and manual labor, jobs that don’t require a degree and for which an expensive education would never provide a financial return on investment.
A college degree is one of the few milestones for entering the middle class, though, so without post-secondary education and an experience that places importance on cognitive development, low-income families are often doomed to repeat the generational cycle of poverty.
Several years ago, Rutgers University officials noted that even the low-income students from the cities surrounding the college’s campuses who wanted to attend college did not have the grades and scores to qualify for acceptance. The university began a program, Rutgers Future Scholars, that would invest in 183 seventh-graders and continue investing in them throughout the remainder of their education.
For the cost of $1.6 million a year, funded through private donations, each student recommended by their school principals to participate received:
- A year-round mentor.
- Encouragement to spend summers taking classes.
- Leadership activities and other programs at Rutgers University.
- SAT preparation classes, tutors, and counselors.
- Free college tuition to Rutgers University.
The program began five years ago, and now the first students who participated in the Rutgers Future Scholars program are ready to attend college. Of the 183 who participated in the program, 163 will be going to college. 98 of those students will attend Rutgers without needing to pay tuition or fees. 19 students will attend other four-year colleges, most with full scholarships. 46 will attend county colleges for two years and then still be able to transfer to Rutgers on a full scholarship. Most of those who plan to attend county colleges applied to Rutgers but were not accepted.
Each year, a new batch of 200 students in the program will graduate high school, and there will be new statistics to analyze the progress of those students and the program itself.
It’s possible that the success of the program and the students within the program is due in part to the principals’ recommendations. It’s possible that the principals chose students who as early as seventh grade they would expect to succeed in college but did not have the resources to make education a priority. It’s clear that at least some of the students, based on comments they’ve made to reporters, were not planning to attend college when they started due to the expected cost, most likely discouraged by their parents.
The direct investment from Rutgers was able to show these students that education is a priority and that they could achieve educational success when the culture in which they live provides encouragement, resources, and a sense of importance.
The Rutgers Future Scholars program has to be about more than just accepting local students into higher education. It’s about making possible major changes in the lives of families. For many of the students attending college through the program, the kids are the first in their families’ history to attend college. This is an amazing opportunity to set future generations in a position to join the middle class, save for the future, and stimulate a microculture that prioritizes education and responsible financial planning. This is how the cycle of poverty can break.
Unfortunately, at a cost of $1.6 million per year, it’s not going to continue forever or scale easily. And there are some questions that still remain to be resolved.
- Will the students in the program succeed beyond their four years in college? Principals most likely chose students already poised to succeed, just lacking the resources and encouragement. The program needs to determine using other students as a control whether the program made a difference in more than just the ability to afford college.
- Will the students earn higher salaries when they enter the workforce? Overall, graduates with bachelor’s degrees earn more than those with nothing more than a high school diploma, and much more than students who haven’t graduated high school. Even in today’s tougher job market, although even those with college degrees are struggling to find jobs, those without are struggling more. What will the job market look like when the Rutgers Future Scholars receive their degrees? Will the jobs they receive be reflective of their education or will they be underemployed?
- Would the program see the same success rate if it offered only the free tuition or only the educational support? The two main pieces of the program are the services and encouragement offered to the students in the intervening years between seventh grade and college and the full scholarship to Rutgers. The priority the program puts on education may be something that home life is unable to provide, and that might be the main driver of success. The full scholarship might not play as much of a role, but perhaps just knowing that college is attainable from a financial perspective is an important part of providing the motivation to study and prepare.
- What will be the multi-generational effect of the program? Rutgers Future Scholars has been in operation for only five years. That’s not nearly enough to determine whether the program will change lives. A college education today is still one of the best pathways from poverty or low-income status to the middle class, but will the kids who received this stimulus be able to achieve middle class status, maintain that status later in life, and pass along the value of education to their own children? Will their children be poised to enter college if they choose and continue a lifestyle of comfort rather than a lifestyle where meeting basic needs are part of a daily struggle?
What are your impressions of the Rutgers Future Scholars program? Is this a good way to help families break the cycle of poverty or just a way to bring more local students into the college system? Do you think this is a waste of time and that these kids who wouldn’t be able to afford or prioritize college shouldn’t be offered the opportunity?
Published or updated August 14, 2013.