Building a Future with Rutgers Future Scholars
Building a Future with Rutgers Future ScholarsAbby Hexter, Assistant Director, Member Communications, The College Board
Social justice demands it, academic excellence depends on it.
— Richard L. McCormick, Rutgers University president 2002–2012, speaking about access to higher education
When Michelle Palma was in seventh grade, she already knew she wanted to go to college. She also knew that in order to make that happen, she would need to find a way to pay for it. So, when her teacher handed her an application for Rutgers Future Scholars (RFS) one day during class, her first thought was, “There’s no way this is real.”
After all, at that point RFS was still a new program. In 2007, Courtney McAnuff, vice president for enrollment management at Rutgers, and then-college president Richard L. McCormick saw a problem with Rutgers’ student body: high-achieving students from largely low-income and minority school districts like Newark and Camden, N.J., were not enrolling at Rutgers at rates comparable to their higher-income peers. McCormick’s legacy was rooted in his wholehearted belief in the value of diversity and increasing access to higher education. In this spirit, McAnuff set out to change Rutgers’ student body.
McAnuff knew that interacting with students early in their academic career was the key to ensuring their success. In collaboration with Rutgers faculty and staff, corporations, community-based organizations, and over 110 public middle and high schools in Newark, Camden, Piscataway, and New Brunswick, he developed a proposal for a holistic five-year precollege program designed to provide academic, social, and emotional support for high-achieving, low-income students in New Jersey. Students who complete the program are under no obligation to attend Rutgers, but should they choose to enroll, will attend tuition free.
“When I presented the idea to [McCormick], the most surprising thing happened,” McAnuff said. “He said OK, go do it.”
In fall 2008, the first cohort of RFS was formed. Beginning the program as eighth-graders, this group of students would participate in university programming, take college courses and earn college credit, attend special events, go on planned field trips, and receive individualized academic tutoring, mentoring, and college counseling over the next five years.
Who is a Rutgers Future Scholar?
Each year, RFS accepts 200 new Scholars (50 from each of the four participating school districts) who meet specific criteria. Specifically, students must be:
- Living and attending public school in one of the four named districts
- Enrolled in seventh grade when they apply
- Poised to become the first in their family to attend college
- Recommended by a school administrator or teacher
- Able to demonstrate academic promise
One the most challenging criteria to define was academic promise. This became a learning process for schools, students, and RFS program leaders.
For Eve Sachs, program coordinator for Rutgers’ New Brunswick/Piscataway campus, defining academic promise is “about defining talent at the school level.”
And it’s not always about grades. “We want teachers to recognize students who aren’t reaching their full potential, but who could succeed academically with the right support,” said Sachs. Attributes like grit, charisma, self-efficacy, and confidence are taken into consideration for all potential scholars, in addition to their academic performance.
As the program developed, it quickly became clear that students’ home lives should be a major consideration when designing the program’s curriculum.
“There are Scholars who come from difficult circumstances such as being the only person in their family to speak English, living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, or having a parent or sibling in prison,” said RFS director Aramis Gutierrez. “These types of situations can distract them from reaching their goals. RFS is designed to bring stability to scholars whose lives can, at times, be extremely tumultuous.”
Initially, getting parents on board also proved to be a challenge. Some were skeptical at first, but they quickly got excited about the program — particularly the prospect of having their children’s college tuition paid in full.
“Because of their economic limitations, many parents believed sending their child to college, given the sticker price, was impossible,” said Gutierrez. And rightfully so — the cost of a college education can be overwhelming for many parents, regardless of their socioeconomic situation.
To alleviate their anxiety, RFS provides scholars and their families with financial literacy resources and helps them with the financial aid aspect of applying to college (although these students attend Rutgers for free, they are still required to apply for financial aid).
“Families and students like ours face not necessarily an achievement gap but an opportunity gap. We are empowered by information, and RFS bridges that gap to ensure that the opportunity to succeed presents itself,” Gutierrez said.
The first cohort of Rutgers Future Scholars, known as the class of 2017 — the students’ projected year of college graduation — began with 183 rising eighth-graders. Overall, 97 percent of the class of 2017 graduated from high school on time with an average GPA of 3.42, compared with high school graduation rates as low as 57 percent in some RFS districts. Of those 183 students, 99 began attending Rutgers in fall 2013, 45 are currently attending community college, and 19 are attending other four-year institutions, including Barnard College, Howard University, Seton Hall University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Life as a Scholar, as told by RFS Class of 2018
Michelle, now a freshman at Rutgers double majoring in nursing and psychology, had no concept of the scope of RFS’s impact on New Jersey’s students when she decided to fill out the application to become a member of the second RFS cohort — the class of ’18.
“I thought, I’m still in middle school, there’s no way they were really gonna pay for college,” she said. “But I read through the contract included with the application, and I knew they were contractually obligated to pay for something, so I figured I had nothing to lose.”
“I had friends who wished they would have applied, but they never did because it sounded too good to be true,” said Cecilia Salazar, also a freshman at Rutgers.
Melissa Castro, a Rutgers freshman on the premed track majoring in biology, remembers being singled out in class when her eighth-grade teacher gave her the RFS application and encouraged her to apply. “The rest of my class was curious about what it was,” she said.
“I was one of the people who didn’t get the application [for RFS],” said Magdiel Solis. “Back then I didn’t care about education at all.”
Magdiel ended up having to repeat the seventh grade, which gave him the unexpected but ultimately welcome opportunity to turn things around and take advantage of the opportunities RFS offers. “I changed my ways and applied to the program. I’m so thankful I didn’t miss out.” Magdiel is now a freshman at Rutgers.
Once they became scholars, the class of ’18 took advantage of the opportunities they had earned — not only inside the classroom, but also as members of a new community. Melissa recalls that the social implications of the transition from middle school to high school were as daunting as the academic. “You think, who are going to be my friends in high school, and am I going to continue achieving?”
“RFS allowed me to understand how it felt to meet new people and make new bonds so that by the time I got into high school, it was easy,” said class of ’18 Scholar Taheir Barnes.
RFS’s summer programs between eighth and ninth grade provide both academic and social support that prepare students to start high school with confidence. Scholars visit Rutgers’ campuses during this time, where they not only participate in rigorous summer enrichment courses and earn college credit, but also get tips on preparing for their next transition: graduating from high school and going to college. Arpit Shah, who is currently double majoring in computer science and mathematics at Rutgers, said that the guidance he got from college professors during RFS’s summer program altered how he approached his high school career.
“I got into a physics course, which really sparked my interest even further in science and technology,” said Arpit. “We worked with many professors who introduced us to how college might be, and to the course work we could expect in high school and in college.”
[YOUR SCHOOL HERE] Future Scholars
Today, RFS is widely known by students, families, and the education community throughout New Jersey and has gained national recognition. The program has been featured in news outlets including the The New York Times, Telemundo, Diversity Inc, the Huffington Post, and New Jersey Public Radio and has raised over $4 million from individual donors, regional and national corporations, and foundations. In 2013, RFS won the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ Grand Excellence Award and received a grant by the Mott Foundation to host Mission: Possible, a national college access conference that explores strategies to make college completion a reality for all students.
RFS embraces its role as a model program for increasing campus diversity, creating community partnerships, and building educational opportunities for students from low-income areas. The program has caught the attention of other institutions looking to implement something like RFS on their campuses, including James Madison University and the University of Michigan. Thanks to a second, larger grant from the Mott Foundation, RFS and Rutgers staff are currently developing a toolkit and resources specifically geared toward helping other institutions implement similar programs.
At the heart of RFS’s support is the understanding that serving students on an emotional, academic, social, and cultural level is far from an exact science, and isn’t easily replicated. For a program like RFS to succeed at another institution or in a different community, it must serve the particular needs of the unique student population. RFS leaders emphasize several strategies on which schools should focus to ensure success.
- Make data a priority: Build in resources to track critical metrics from the beginning. RFS staff has access to large quantities of data that they are able to analyze and use to inform programmatic changes, set and achieve goals, and make the case for more funding and resources.
- Build off existing resources: Explore what already exists within your institution to promote precollege partnerships and community engagement.
- Collaborate internally: Partner with undergraduate and graduate programs that are mutually beneficial (such as a graduate dissertation on student performance data, or a social work student participating in a mentorship program).
- Collaborate externally: Building key relationships with teachers, counselors, and school administrators is invaluable for student recruitment. It is also important to partner with community-based organizations and local businesses, which can lead to internship opportunities for students, sources of funding, and extra supports for students.
- Get early buy-in from higher-ups: RFS continues to succeed in part because it has the full backing and support from Rutgers leadership and is recognized as a critical component of the university’s strategic plan.
The RFS program is an example of how higher education institutions can leverage their resources, personnel, and relationships to impact students, their families, and the surrounding community. RFS continues to welcome 200 new students each year, growing the RFS family to over 1000 Scholars to date. And with each cohort, the program adapts to fit the ever-shifting needs of the unique community it serves. As more students become Future Scholars, the impact of the program’s ability to affect student outcomes and change the college-going paradigm for New Jersey’s students will continue to expand.