NEWARK — By most measures, Sabrina Vasquez is smart. The Kearny, N.J., native earned 1330 on her SAT and 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, longtime executive director of the Educational Opportunity Program. He ran it for 21 years until retiring this month. If it feels like boot camp, that’s because Howell, a former Green Beret, designed it that way.
“Sleep is optional, it really is,” Howell said.
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. Before students really knew what they agreed to, they surrendered their cellphones and were followed when they went to the bathroom during class. On just the third day, Marko Hernandez, from nearby Linden, N.J., said, “It feels like it’s been a month. I graduated [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, have shown that a carefully structured combination of demanding academics and intensive support 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 the New Jersey Institute of Technology, 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. In each of the last two years, about 100 minority students have earned engineering degrees at NJIT, according to Diverse.
Vasquez is a first-generation college student; her mother graduated from high school in Italy and her father grew up in a New York housing development 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 if she wanted to come home. Vasquez knew she couldn’t quit. By the end of summer, not only did she earn recognition as the top student in 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.
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 attend and succeed at the state’s colleges. Similar programs popped up nationwide around the same time, but not all remain. The largest programs are in California, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state.
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 University, 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 Program 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.
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 grade-point average and a 1250 SAT score. 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 probably 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 midcareer, 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.
Because of Howell’s military training, he says, he tends to eschew the big picture for the 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 at night when students could use their phones was reduced to 15 minutes — for all students.
But former students said Howell sometimes felt like a best friend. He advocated for them within the university, unearthed scholarship money or connected them with a coveted job opportunity.
“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 cellphones, 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.
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.”
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.
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 okay,” he said. “I like learning.”
Raul Hernandez, also a first-generation college student, said his parents have been preparing him to succeed his whole life. 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 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.
Howell said his office gets $690,310 in state money to run the 5 1/2- week summer program, and $589,682 to run the program for both the fall and spring semesters. The program provides pocket money to students — about $2,600 a year — for books and other needs their families may not be able to cover. Nine people staff NJIT’s program office, and during the academic year, the program employs 40 to 90 tutors, Howell said. NJIT tuition for in-state residents is $16,898 a year, and Howell said most program graduates owe $22,000 to $25,000 in student loans when they finish.
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 said.) The 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.