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Cooperman College Scholars
Cooperman Scholar Ashly Sanchez plays an icebreaker game during the program’s summer session on Rutgers University-Newark’s campus. Credit: Arianna Skibell

NEWARK, N.J. — A group of rising high school seniors stood in a circle at Rutgers University-Newark’s campus, playing an icebreaker. Not that they needed it. The group had been living on campus together for three weeks, and already felt like family.

“We all just mesh well together. It’s like an ecosystem,” said Sideeq Waziri, 17, who dreams of becoming an inventor. “I think we all just have similar goals and aspirations.”

Their common goal? Getting to and through college, no matter the obstacles.

And if all goes according to plan, they will, thanks to Cooperman College Scholars, a program that supports a select number of motivated low-income students in Essex County, New Jersey, including Waziri and 76 others. They are the first cohort to benefit from hedge fund CEO and philanthropist Leon Cooperman’s $25 million investment in them.

The 77 were chosen from a pool of 300 applicants, according to Twinkle Morgan, the program’s executive director. The students, mostly black and Hispanic, attend high schools that can’t necessarily give them the support they’ll need to get to college.

Cooperman’s efforts come at a time when the odds are stacked against low-income students. In 2013, only 45 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in college, as compared to 58 percent in 2007. And getting into college is just the first step. Once enrolled, low-income students struggle to adjust and often drop out.

Those in the bottom quartile of income have only a 9 percent chance of graduating college by the time they’re 24. In other words, there’s a 91 percent chance that a low-income student won’t earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24.

Related: Nonprofits step in to help students that colleges allow to ‘slip through the cracks’

In Essex County, only 27.5 percent of residents over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree. In Newark, where a majority of the Cooperman scholars attend public school, it’s around 9 percent. And many of their parents did not attend college themselves.

“Not all of the students from the public high schools here have access to really great resources, like an incredible fully functional science lab, or a robust internship program,” said Shawn Jenkins, the educator who directs Cooperman’s pre-college programs. “We’re trying to create the opportunities for kids who already have the talent. It’s not brain surgery. It’s a very simple idea the talented people are everywhere, all you have to do is give them the opportunity and they will thrive.”

Cooperman’s team chooses students he believes will graduate from college if provided additional help, including early exposure to a college campus, SAT/ACT prep courses and assistance with applications and financial aid forms. If scholarship awards don’t cover all their college costs, Cooperman’s donation will help make up the difference. And once Cooperman Scholars are in college, the program will offer counseling and mentoring support.

The selected students have drive, perseverance and plenty of academic aptitude, Jenkins said. They just lack exposure to the amenities and expectations common in high-performing high schools.

Getting a head start

Cooperman College Scholars
Cooperman Scholar Sideeq Waziri and pre-college program director Shawn Jenkins talk about college. Credit: Arianna Skibell

For three weeks last summer, the first class of Cooperman scholars lived on campus at one of the four partner colleges — Rutgers-Newark, Rowan University, Franklin & Marshall College and The College of New Jersey. They took courses taught by college faculty. Cooperman officials worked with the scholars’ parents, explaining the college application process and helping the parents compile the financial documentation they’ll need in the months ahead.

If the scholars are admitted to and enroll in one of the four partner schools next spring, Cooperman will pay up to $9,000 per year toward their tuition, books and other fees. If they choose another college, he will pay up to $2,000 per year.*

The three-week program was harder than some Cooperman scholars imagined. Ashly Sanchez** moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic at age 12 and taught herself English. At first she thought college would be the same as high school. And she was good at high school.

“But then I got here and there’s all this work. I was so stressed, staying up late,” she said. “Then I was like, ok, I’m just going to do time management. And the mentors spoke with us about it, and we did a schedule. And I got my work done. Now I know what to expect and what to be ready for in college.”

Related: Some high schools following their graduates straight into college

The scholars had jam-packed days and tons of homework. They studied English literature, math and sociology. They learned how to write and structure essays and studied gender identity and institutional racism. They visited and toured businesses like Bloomberg L.P. and Audible Inc. And they took workshops in college readiness and financial management.

One of their first class assignments was to write a five-page essay. Sometimes bedtime was 4 a.m. They leaned on each other for support. And they loved it.

“I don’t want to go back to high school,” Waziri said afterwards. “I want to go to college already.”

Making it work

Cooperman’s leadership team borrowed from established models — like the Posse Foundation scholarships,*** KIPP Through College, the Uncommon Schools charter network and Franklin & Marshall College’s Next Generation Initiative — to specifically target driven and resilient students whose families make less than a certain annual income.

“We’re trying to create the opportunities for kids who already have the talent. It’s not brain surgery … talented people are everywhere, all you have to do is give them the opportunity and they will thrive.”

Getting into the program requires a personal essay, an interview and participation in a group team-building exercise, all designed to identify students with attributes like leadership, perseverance, grit and teamwork. The minimum GPA to qualify is 2.75. So while every student accepted to the program must be a viable college candidate, they’re not necessarily at the top of their class.

They are, however, all determined. Jenkins witnessed this fortitude one day when he was on his way back from a coffee run. He saw Jasmine Jackson, 17, crying, face in hands, outside her classroom. It was her turn to read her college personal statement aloud.

“You don’t have to read your personal statement,” Jenkins said. “If you feel like your comfort zone is being pushed too far, then take a step back. You can read an excerpt. You can read another piece. You don’t have to do it.”

Marne Benson, the Rutgers-Newark professor teaching the class, joined Jenkins outside. She echoed his sentiment, telling Jackson that writing the essay might be enough for now.

“Of course I want to read it,” Jackson said. “But it’s going to be hard.”

Jackson collected herself and returned to class. She passed out tissues as she made her way to the podium.

“You should never judge a book by its cover,” Jackson began, her voice wavering. “I have been a foster child for 11 years now. And within these years, I have wondered why people have children, if they are just going to neglect them.”

Jackson told her classmates that her mother had been a drug addict. That she would disappear, leaving Jackson and her siblings alone in the house for hours and sometimes days. When hunger hit, Jackson’s oldest sister, who was 12, would leave the house to steal some food.

“When my mother would return home, most of the time she would bring strange people in our house,” Jackson read. “And she would always beat my sister and I even though we did not do anything.”

Eventually, social services intervened. Jackson was separated from all but one of her siblings and sent to live with her grandparents.

But, Jackson asserted, her experiences made her stronger. “Giving up is never an option,” she read. “If I survived that, I can survive anything.”

Related: Colleges need to support low-income students or risk greater economic disparity. But can it be done?

A few days before the scholars read their personal statements aloud, Benson had assigned an excerpt from Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities. Kozol describes how public schools are largely funded through property taxes, which means that schools in wealthier neighborhoods receive more money. Poorer neighborhoods are underfunded, their schools underserved.

“I don’t want to go back to high school. I want to go to college already.”

The book sparked a debate. While a couple of the young scholars argued that circumstance largely determines achievement, many said they felt the individual is the sole master of his or her fate. That surprised Benson.

“It’s interesting because the population of these kids is really the population Kozol is talking about,” Benson said. “But they don’t want to have a defeatist attitude. They said, ‘Well, you can make it work no matter what situation you’re born into,’ which I really appreciate.”

When Cooperman, 72, decided to donate $25 million to create his college readiness and scholarship program, that was exactly the kind of attitude he was looking for.

The man behind the money

“I believe in teaching kids how to fish, not giving them fish,” Cooperman said. “You’ve got to be motivated, you’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to have the smarts. And if you’ve got all that working for you, I’ll empower you to get that education.”

Cooperman College Scholars
Hedge fund CEO Leon Cooperman with his wife Toby Cooperman.

The son of Jewish immigrants, Cooperman was the first in his family to go to college. He was raised in the South Bronx, where his father worked as a plumber.

Cooperman spoke about his program from his soaring midtown Manhattan office at Omega Advisors, Inc., the hedge fund he founded in 1991. He placed a letter he wrote on his desk, addressed to Mr. Warren E. Buffett.

“This tells you my life story in a nutshell,” he said. “This was [after a] dinner I had with Bill and Melinda Gates, [former New York] Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Warren Buffet, when they asked me to take the Giving Pledge.”

The Giving Pledge is a campaign, made public by Buffett and Gates, urging the world’s wealthiest individuals to donate the majority of their fortunes to philanthropy. In the letter, Cooperman explains how he and his wife, Toby, are examples of what you can achieve — no matter your background.

“There was a movie called Fort Apache, The Bronx; Paul Newman starred in it,” Cooperman said. “The opening scene was a six-story tenement. On top of the building, a couple of minority kids took a kid and threw him off the building. That was the opening scene. I grew up in the rough-and-tumble section of the South Bronx.”

Related: Even with free tuition, hurdles remain for raising number of college graduates

But Cooperman said he had the luck of being born into a two-parent household where educational attainment was encouraged and supported.

“You’ve got to be motivated, you’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to have the smarts. And if you’ve got all that working for you, I’ll empower you to get that education.”

“Most of these kids I meet are from singleparent households,” he said. “Their parents are divorced or they’ve been abandoned by their father. My father was an important influence in my life.”

Cooperman said he attended Hunter College of the City University of New York for just $25 a semester. “You can’t do that any more,” he said. “And these kids don’t have the money. I had a topnotch education that opened up the door to a good career. You’re lost in society without an education.”

That’s why Cooperman decided to focus on helping students in Essex County — where he lived for 45 years — who have the drive but lack the means or support to go to college. And Cooperman insisted that, in the application process, the scholars demonstrate a serious and realistic interest in going to college.

Ultimately, Cooperman plans to fund 500 students, including the initial cohort of 77. If the program succeeds and he continues to have the means, he says he will invest more.

“I’m hoping to change the life of these kids,” he said. “These are splendid youngsters that deserve a break. If I can take these kids and we can change the graduation rate — to me, that’s a life well lived.”

But is it enough?

In creating the program, Cooperman said he was determined to succeed, but lacked the skills to do it himself. So he contacted Norman Atkins to help him design the program. Atkins is the founder of Uncommon Schools, a charter school network serving New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

In a matter of months, Atkins assembled a team. He hired Twinkle Morgan, who worked with him at Uncommon Schools, as executive director. He got advice from Franklin & Marshall’s president, Daniel Porterfield, who is known for his tenacious efforts to educate immigrant, first-generation and low-income students.

Porterfield recommended Jenkins, who helped design Franklin & Marshall’s pre-college program. Jenkins himself had received a Posse Scholarship, which supports low-income students through college. He mentors each of the Cooperman scholars, and even dispensed advice to some finalists who didn’t make it into the program.

Related: Why are low-income students not showing up to college, even though they have been accepted?

Cooperman is not the first billionaire to donate his money to an education initiative. Some have invested specifically in individual students, such as George Weiss, who gave $5 million to one West Philadelphia sixth-grade class; others have set up location-based scholarship funds, like the Kalamazoo Promise. Increasingly, philanthropists are using their wealth to design projects that meet their own specific visions, with varying degrees of success.

Cooperman — who said he has worked 70-hours per week for the last 50 years — is “holding his breath” and “crossing his fingers” that his money will be well spent, adding: “I don’t want to see the money tinkled away unproductively.”

Nationwide, young people whose families are in the bottom quartile of income have only a 9 percent chance of graduating college by the time they’re 24.

He’s aware that it’s a possibility. “Where did Mark Zuckerberg’s money go in Newark? They are having trouble finding it,’’ Cooperman said, referring to the $100 million the Facebook founder donated in 2010 — a gift that has been criticized for failing to more directly help kids and classrooms.

Kevin Kruger, the president of NASPA — a member organization that works with college faculty and staff in supporting all aspects of student life, including college adjustment for low-income students — doesn’t think Cooperman should be worried.

The cohort model that groups students with friends who have a shared history and culture provides a vital emotional support in college. Pairing students with a faculty mentor, as Cooperman officials are doing, will encourage them to seek guidance outside the classroom — another marker of college success. Working with parents to fill out confusing financial aid forms is also invaluable, Kruger said.

“That program [Cooperman scholars] will work,” he said. “Those students will attain at a higher rate. I can guarantee it.”

Jenny Nagaoka — the deputy director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research — studies the transition from high school to college. She said nonprofits and other organizations, like the Cooperman College Scholars, do important work.

But, she said, schools have the ability to reach all students, while these programs tend to target only motivated ones, potentially leaving behind those who need the most help.

“If you really want to make sure that all students, particularly low-income students, are going on to college,” she said, “we need to pay close attention to schools.”

Of the thousands of Essex County public school students, only 77 were chosen as Cooperman scholars this year.

Yet for those it does serve, the program is already making a difference.

Waziri scored in the 83rd percentile on his SAT, takes International Baccalaureate classes and attends a highly ranked magnet school. But, he said, this summer was the first time he truly understood how to structure an academic essay.

“Professor Benson laid it out for me. It just clicked,” he said.

And if Waziri had not been a Cooperman scholar, who would be helping him write his college essay this fall?

“Nobody,” he said.

*Clarification: The Cooperman scholarship offers up to $9,000 per year for partner schools and $2,000 per year for non-partner schools.

**Correction: This story has been updated with correct spelling of Ashly Sanchez’s name.

***Correction: This story has been updated with correct name of Posse Foundation.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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