Divided We Learn

How Educational Opportunity Programs graduate first-generation college students

A wildly successful boot camp combines tough academics, strict rules and minimal sleep

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Educational Opportunity Programs

Teamwork is encouraged at the nightly study sessions.

NEWARK, N.J. — By most measures, Sabrina Vasquez is smart. The Kearny, New Jersey, native earned 1330 on her SAT and successfully took AP classes in high school. So when the 18-year-old began the summer Educational Opportunity Program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, she thought she knew what she was in for. She was wrong.

The program, designed to prepare students for their first year in college, subjects them to 15-hour days full of classes and study sessions. Vasquez was overwhelmed and got sick almost immediately. “I thought it was the worst thing ever, that there was no point to it,” she said of the program’s long days and strict rules.

This story is familiar to Laurence “Tony” Howell, the executive director of NJIT’s Educational Opportunity Program. He ran the program for 21 years until retiring this month. If it feels like boot camp, that’s because Howell, a former Green Beret, has designed it that way.

“Sleep is optional, it really is,” Howell says.

Vasquez wasn’t the only one to complain about the program’s pace. Its requirements were a shock to most of the 18-year-olds in the program. Many received their high school diploma less than a week before the session started and before students really knew what they agreed to, they surrendered their cell phones and were followed when they went to the bathroom during class. On just the third day, Marko Hernandez from nearby Linden, New Jersey, said, “It feels like it’s been a month. I graduated [from high school] five days ago and I feel like a different person.”

But most agree it’s worth it. Educational Opportunity Programs, a feature of university systems in several states across the country, have shown that a carefully structured combination of demanding academics and intensive supports can launch vulnerable students to success during their first year in college. Students then often go on to graduate at higher rates than their peers. And at NJIT, by completing Howell’s six-week summer program, students land a golden ticket: a seat at a college ranked sixth in the country for graduating engineers of color, according to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, a news magazine and website focused on diversity in American higher education. In each of the last two years, about 100 students of color have earned engineering degrees at NJIT, according to Diverse.

“We’re changing lives,” says Howell.

Vasquez is a first-generation college student; her mother graduated from high school in Italy and her father grew up in the New York City projects and doesn’t have a high school diploma, she says. When she called home that first week of boot camp to get medication, her mother asked her if she wanted to come home. Vasquez knew she couldn’t quit so she stayed. By the end of the summer, not only did she earn recognition as the top student in both calculus and physics, but she understood the method to Howell’s seeming madness.

“I recognize the program helped me become more confident. I’m a little quiet,” she said. When fall semester started she had a ready-made group of friends to study and hang out with, making her transition less intimidating. Because the summer session reviewed material and previewed the first weeks of her courses, she is progressing well in her classes. She hopes to major in mechanical or civil engineering, and although her dream job remains undefined she said her goal is “to live comfortably, not paycheck to paycheck.”

Chemistry teacher Daniel Duca explains the concept of chromatography by describing how tie-dye tee shirts are made.

Chemistry teacher Daniel Duca explains the concept of chromatography by describing how tie-dye tee shirts are made.

New Jersey’s educational opportunity program is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It’s a positive vestige of the riots that roiled Newark in 1967. In the aftermath, state legislators allocated money to help urban students who weren’t getting a good enough K-12 education to attend and succeed at the state’s colleges. Similar programs popped up nationwide around the same time, but not all remain. Currently, the largest programs are in New York, California, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington.

New Jersey’s program provides money and support services to 13,449 students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds in 42 programs from community colleges to Rutgers, the state flagship. Nationwide only 11 percent of low-income first-generation college students graduate in six years. But New Jersey students in the Educational Opportunity Fund graduated at a 55 percent rate, leading the pack, along with Wisconsin, among the 15 states cited in a report from New Jersey’s Office of the Secretary of Higher Education.  (Statewide the program is known as the Educational Opportunity Fund; at NJIT, the program is called the Educational Opportunity Program.)

While these programs serve students during their entire college enrollment, most include a summer schedule to get incoming freshmen up to speed for the fall.

NJIT accepts 61 percent of its applicants; successful applicants average a 3.57 GPA and a 1250 SAT. Most students chosen for the Educational Opportunity Program wouldn’t otherwise get into NJIT. They have an average GPA of 3.2 and an SAT score of roughly 1200, and must successfully complete the summer program to earn admission in the fall.

The program is likely one of the reasons NJIT ranks 65th in the country in the 2017 Social Mobility Index by CollegeNET, a privately held company that provides technologies to colleges and universities. The report ranks colleges by their success enrolling low-income students and guiding them toward well-paying jobs. NJIT graduates earn a median early-career salary of $60,800, putting them just behind Vanderbilt University, but ahead of Tufts University and Boston College. By mid-career, its graduates earn just over $120,000 annually, topping the likes of UCLA grads, according to a survey from PayScale, a private company that tracks compensation.

Related: Montana vote becomes a national referendum on public confidence in higher ed

Because of his military training, Howell says he tends to eschew the big picture for the specific detail, knowing that if he can get students to succeed at their next task, they will eventually thrive. In the first week of 2018’s summer program, some students used a vending machine at NJIT without permission. Reaction was swift: a one-hour period during which all students could use their phones at night was reduced to 15 minutes.

The main building on NJIT’s Newark campus.

The main building on NJIT’s Newark campus.

But former students said Howell also sometimes felt like a best friend. He advocates for them within the university, unearths scholarship money that can eliminate an upcoming tuition bill or connects them with a coveted job opportunity that could approach six figures.

“He’s the scariest, nicest man I know,” said senior mechanical engineering student Danny Tandazo, a current program participant.

Howell considers the summer program “pothole” duty because the staff must fill in gaps in students’ knowledge. Area high schools don’t prepare kids, even ones with high GPAs and solid SAT scores, to be ready to succeed in the university’s math, physics and chemistry classes, he says.

That is why NJIT’s summer program bans cell phones, laptops and, for math classes, calculators. Without these tools, Howell and his team of teachers and student teaching assistants can learn exactly what students know and what they don’t.

Some students can’t multiply fractions, Howell says in amazement. “How can you not multiply fractions and be a mechanical engineer? You’ll kill someone.”

Related: One solution for boosting Latino graduation rates

Students take four classes during the summer session. Days kick off at 8 a.m. with a three-hour class that alternates daily between physics and math. After lunch, students get 90 minutes of English, then two hours of chemistry or study skills. After decompressing over dinner, students head back to the classrooms for four hours of nightly homework duty, overseen by upperclassmen who have been through the program.

What overwhelms students the first week becomes the norm when the program wraps up in early August. Marko Hernandez complained about the program’s hours in the first week, but by the end of the summer, he had adjusted. “Even though a month is not a long time compared to the next four years, it was enough to get accustomed to the schedule,” he said. “I can definitely say that EOP is tons of times more strict than college will be, but I still believe that strictness was absolutely necessary.”

An important part of summer study programs is helping students learn about the social and academic expectations that come with college, said Laura W. Perna, the chair of the Higher Education Division at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “There is so much variation across high schools in terms of the coursework that’s being offered, the extent to which the academic preparation that students have coming in is not matching the expectations at the college level,” she said. “Programs like this can help level that playing field.”

At a pre-graduation program in the spring, happy seniors pose with the program’s Associate Director Kim Akhtab while wearing their Educational Opportunity Programs stoles

At a pre-graduation program in the spring, happy seniors pose with the program’s associate director Kim Akhtab while wearing their Educational Opportunity Program stoles

Raul Hernandez said the NJIT summer institute helped him correct some academic shortcomings following his graduation from nearby Hoboken High School. “It wasn’t the best high school,” he said. In his Fundamentals of Engineering and Design class, classmates already knew about concepts he’d never heard of.

“Some kids knew what to do, but it’s OK,” he said. “I like learning.”

He worked with his father at a bagel store for six months but learned more when he left the job, he said. “After I quit, [my dad] was like, ‘You see, I don’t want you working here. Be successful. Be someone,’” he said.

Successful summer programs for first-generation students need to make sure undergraduates feel both cared for and connected, said Zoe Corwin, an associate professor with the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. For students who excelled in high school, “It could be an unnerving experience not being the smartest kid in the room,” she said. That’s why helping students create their own cohort is especially valuable.

“Study sessions are super important,” especially for engineers because so much work happens in groups, said Antar A. Tichavakunda, an assistant professor of education leadership at the University of Cincinnati. He has studied how black engineers fare and says the ability to create a community of students is “invaluable for student success in STEM.”

Creating that sense of belonging was a big goal for the summer program and another excuse to take students’ cellphones. In the short amount of time they aren’t in class or studying, the students actually had their heads up, talking to each other and making friends. Several times during lunch, staff had to implore them to mute their conversation and laughter a little.

After three classes that run from 8 to 5, every student is required to spend four hours a night in homework sessions.

After three classes that run from 8 to 5, every student is required to spend four hours a night in homework sessions.

Howell said his office gets $690,310 in state funds to run the five-and-a-half-week summer program, and $589,682 to run the program for the both the fall and spring semesters. EOP also provides some pocket money to students, about $2,600 a year, for books and other needs their families may not be able to help with. Nine people staff NJIT’s program office, and during the academic year, the program employs anywhere from 40 to 90 tutors, Howell said. NJIT tuition for in-state residents is $16,898 a year and Howell said most program graduates owe between $22,000 and $25,000 in student loans when they finish.

Related: Black students default on college loans at a higher rate than others, study finds

While the program’s benefits have been proven, the question that hung over the first week was whether the students had to be pushed so hard to achieve these gains.

“It’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant,” acknowledged Howell. “We’ve got to let them know that the volume of work in high school is a cup of water compared to the amount of work they’ll be doing in college.”

Former students agreed. “They knew what was best for me even when I didn’t,” said Joshua Barker, a former Educational Opportunity Program student who graduated this spring and is now a lieutenant in the Air Force.

Associate Director Kim Akhtab said several students came to her ready to quit at different points in the summer. But with some convincing, she managed to get all 127 students to stick it out. (Over their college careers, 98 percent of students remain in the Education Opportunity Program at NJIT, Howell says.) Howell’s staff is constantly doing a delicate dance – pushing students but always staying on the lookout for someone who needs reassurance or simply the chance to call home.  “We push them in the door, then we stand behind the door and say, ‘You can’t get out. You can survive this,’” Howell said.

This story about Educational Opportunity Programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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