‘The Best Way to Prepare for College Is to Do College’: Camden Reach Just the Latest New Jersey Program Giving HS Students a Jump Start on Higher Ed

Gov. Phil Murphy (Michael Brochstein / Getty Images)

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Clarification appended

“What skills or traits do you want a leader to have?” professor K. “Yawa” Agbemabiese asked her class. When students finished with this easy question, she upped the difficulty by asking them which skills leaders use to solve problems.

Agbemabiese is a professor of global social sciences at Bard College, and the online class was an introduction to Machiavelli’s The Prince, a college-level text. But the students getting their first taste of the 16th century political treatise, were high schoolers, participants in a new program called Camden Reach. Examining the differences between leaders they like and leaders who are effective was the first step of grappling with the book’s controversial theme that leaders need a certain amount of ruthlessness.

In this pilot, the latest early college effort in New Jersey, juniors from five Camden high schools take a college class each semester, in addition to their regular coursework. The goal is to offer classes to students who might not consider college, allow them to earn free credits and, maybe most importantly, let them prove to themselves that they can handle college-level work. About 45 students choose from two classes, the one offered by Bard’s Early College Program or an entry-level psychology course taught by faculty from Camden County College.

“We’re exposing them to what a college class could look like,” said Agbemabiese. “If they make it through, it might build their confidence.”

“It sends a signal to students,” said New Jersey secretary of higher education Brian Bridges. “You know what? I can do this. College is possible, and now I have a head start.”

The relatively small Camden Reach experiment is just one part of the state’s aggressive push to boost the proportion of residents with a college degree or high-quality certification above 65 percent by 2025. Though the number has risen from 50 percent in 2017 to about 57 percent, the effort is facing strong headwinds caused by the pandemic. Last fall, college freshman enrollment nationally declined by 16.1 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In New Jersey, more than 25,000 fewer students went to college last fall than the year before. Community colleges took the biggest hit, with enrollment dropping 13 percent.

Through April 30, federal student aid applications from high school seniors were down 5.8 percent from the previous year, according to the FAFSA tracker from the National College Attainment Network. In New Jersey, 2,300 fewer seniors filled out FAFSA this year than at the same time as last year. That’s a 4.5 percent decline.

In response, Gov. Phil Murphy made permanent a program that allows students from families with an income of $65,000 or less to attend community college for free. His current budget proposal includes an additional two free years for those students at the state’s four-year public colleges and universities. New Jersey has a long history in helping low-income and first-generation students attend college; it’s Educational Opportunity Fund, started 50 years ago, gives these students academic and financial support to attend and finish college.

The state also began a pilot with nonprofit Modern States and three small, local colleges to allow students to take free courses at their own pace and earn credit if they pass an end-of-class test. This initiative is expected to help adults who are trying to earn a degree, especially at a time of high unemployment.

“Enrollment has taken a hit during the pandemic,” said Bridges. These programs “send a clear message” there is a way for low-income students to attend college. “We think New Jersey can be a model for the rest of the country.”

It is no accident that the first point in the state’s 2019 Student Bill of Rights promises early exposure to college — statistics overwhelmingly point to the success of early college high schools, which came on the scene about 20 years ago. According to the College in High School Alliance, 94 percent of early college high schoolers earn transferable college credit, and 86 percent of these students who enroll in college persist to their second year, compared with 72 percent of all college students.

A 2020 study from University of North Carolina Greensboro found early college students were significantly more likely to earn a degree and to do so faster than classmates who had not attended such a program. The study examined 14 years of data, comparing students who were accepted into early college through a lottery against peers who didn’t get in. The early college students were three times more likely to earn an associate’s degree, and economically disadvantaged students were 4.5 percentage points more likely to earn a bachelor’s. It took early college students two years less to earn an associate’s degree and six months less for a bachelor’s.

“There’s solid evidence supporting early college high schools,” said Elisabeth Barnett, associate director of Columbia University’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching.

While the Camden Reach pilot includes only 45 students, the state also has other programs that offer college classes to high schoolers. Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-Tech, is a six-year program in which students graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in a high-demand field. The state has four of these schools. Bard also runs a decade-old full early college high school program in Newark, and Neptune Township School District has a similar program with Brookdale Community College.

One key factor in the success of these programs is the extra support the high schoolers get to help them step up to college-level work. “Moving the timeline of college up two years is not a breeze, regardless of how well prepared you are,” said Stephen Tremaine, vice president for early colleges at Bard.

In Camden Reach, students meet weekly with counselors from TeenSHARP, an organization that helps underrepresented students gain access to college. Students can learn everything from study skills to how to approach professors with questions to time management.

The Camden Education Fund, one of the groups that helped coordinate this pilot, is spending $50,000 to cover Camden Reach’s costs, from tuition to books. That includes the TeenSHARP counselors and Agbemabiese’s pay. No tuition is charged to students.

Early college programs “cost less than delivering the status quo,” said Tremaine.

In south Jersey, the status quo is far below Murphy’s aim. In Camden County, just 41 percent of residents have a college degree. If the state is to meet its 65 percent goal, it will need significant improvement from south Jersey.

“We always say the best way to prepare for college is to do college,” said Tremaine.

Clarification: Camden students pay no tuition for the Camden Reach early college program.

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