NEW BRUNSWICK — Five years ago, Rutgers University began a grand experiment.
What would happen if the university put nearly 200 low-income kids in an intensive multiyear program to get them ready for college and offered them free tuition to Rutgers if they stuck with it?
The results of the program, called Rutgers Future Scholars, are better than anyone at the university expected. Out of the 183 students who started the program as seventh-graders, 163 are headed to college this fall — including 98 to Rutgers on full scholarships, school officials said.
Nearly all will be among the first in their families to attend college.
“I’m very excited — it even beats the state graduation rate,” said Courtney McAnuff, Rutgers’ vice president for enrollment management. “It’s just been phenomenal.”
The success of the inaugural class of Rutgers Future Scholars is attracting national attention. The university recently received a grant to hold a three-day national conference about the program in November. The event is designed to help other schools and communities around the nation develop similar programs aimed at giving more low-income students a chance to go to college.
Rutgers Future Scholars was started in 2007 after campus officials became concerned few teenagers from the school’s home cities of New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark and Camden were applying to the state university. Of those who applied, few had the grades or SAT scores to get in.
So, Rutgers pledged to invest in helping about 200 low-income students — 50 each from New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark and Camden — get ready for college. The seventh-graders, recommended by their middle-school principals, were given year-round mentors and asked to pledge to spend their summers in prep classes, leadership-building activities and other programs at Rutgers. They were also given SAT prep courses, tutors and counselors.
The students were promised free tuition at Rutgers — if they worked hard enough to get accepted. For many low-income families, who were living at or below the poverty line, the offer was the equivalent of winning the education lottery. Rutgers currently charges $13,499 in annual tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates.
“When they were in seventh grade, we took cost out of the equation,” McAnuff said.
Barbara Andrews, 18, remembers being skeptical when her principal called her to his office five years ago and told the middle-school student she had been recommended for a program that could eventually give her a free ride to Rutgers.
Andrews said she always assumed she couldn’t go to college because her family couldn’t afford it. She is the second youngest of nine children of a single mother.
“College was almost impossible for me,” Andrews said. “This was the only opportunity I had.”
Though she was reluctant to give up her summers to attend the program, Andrews, of Piscataway, took advantage of all of the Rutgers Future Scholars classes, mentoring and counseling. Last spring, she got the news she was accepted to Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus.
“It was just a morning full of tears. It was amazing,” said Andrews, who will major in communications and Spanish. “To get that feeling you are finally accepted, it’s such a relief.”
Joshua Henry, 18, tells a similar story. The Newark resident is one of four children of a nurse and a chef. He will attend Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus in the fall with dreams of eventually attending law school.
Henry credits Rutgers Future Scholars and his summers at the university with showing him he has what it takes to attend college.
“You really get a sense of what it is to be a college student,” Henry said. “It takes away a lot of stress.”
Henry said the students know how lucky they are. “It has given so many of us a chance to go to college,” he said.
Of the 183 students who began the program five years ago, 165 graduated from high school on time, program officials said. Two are joining the military, and 163 will attend college.
Of those going to college, 98 will be at Rutgers and 19 will attend other four-year colleges, including Temple, Howard, Columbia and Quinnipiac universities. Most will have full scholarships.
Another 46 students will attend county colleges. Nearly all of those students applied to Rutgers but did not get in, program officials said. Most plan to attend county colleges for two years, then transfer to Rutgers, where they will still get their full scholarships.
McAnuff said Rutgers officials did not anticipate how much students’ home environments affected their school work. Some of the students in the program are wards of the state, while others have parents in prison. Once they get to college, the program will continue to help the scholars.
“We will provide ongoing support and services,” McAnuff said.
Rutgers officials said the program is not cheap. It costs about $1.6 million a year to run using donated funds. AT&T and Merck have been among the largest corporate donors. Several philanthropists have also been generous, including lumber and construction company owner Steve Colson, who has donated nearly $500,000, campus officials said.
Rutgers has been raising money year round as the program enrolls a new group of 200 scholars each summer for the five-year program.
“The sad thing is how many kids we cannot help, who are equally bright,” McAnuff said.