Daring City Youth to Dream of College

Richard L. McCormick, President
As submitted; published in the Home News Tribune on July 15 and the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 17, 2008

I recently challenged 200 13-year-old city children to do something few of their parents or friends have ever done: dream of going to college.

In 1981, New York business executive Eugene Lang promised 60 Harlem sixth graders that he would send them through college if they finished high school.  Ninety percent of those kids—the first cohort of the “I Have a Dream” movement—earned a high school diploma or GED and half went on to college, far exceeding expectations for that school. In 1987, George A. Weiss started “Say Yes to Education” by making the same promise to 112 sixth graders in Philadelphia’s Belmont section.  Of the first three cohorts in that project, 76 percent earned a diploma or GED and 26 percent received a bachelor’s or graduate degree.

Other philanthropists have stepped forward over the years to guarantee scholarships to inner-city children around the country, offering an array of academic, social, and financial support along the way.  Through a program called Rutgers Future Scholars, New Jersey’s state university is now making a similar promise and offering guidance and academic support to 50 rising eighth graders from each of its host communities.  Why?  First and foremost, because these young men and women deserve a chance for higher education, but also because New Jersey’s long-term strength is tied to the fate of its urban communities; indeed, no state can be great without thriving cities.

For many years, Rutgers has prided itself on a diverse student body, a commitment to financial aid, and a history of enrolling students who are the first in their families to attend college.  Rutgers–Newark—once the scene of an academic-building takeover to protest the scarcity of African-American students and faculty in the institution—has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the most diverse national university. It has also been a leader in promoting access to higher education through the state’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF); disadvantaged students admitted to the EOF program account for about 10 percent of Rutgers’ freshman class from New Jersey.

But despite these commitments to opportunity, it has become clear that a Rutgers education—indeed, a college education of any sort—is still out of the question for far too many urban children in New Jersey.  The percentage of students coming to Rutgers from the state’s cities, or even bothering to apply, is disappointingly low.  Only about 11 percent of Rutgers’ in-state students come from New Jersey’s 15 largest urban communities, despite the fact that they compose nearly 20 percent of the state’s population.

Worse yet, many children in our cities don’t even finish high school.  New Jersey’s urban schools lag far behind in high school completion and in many cases exceed the national graduation rate gap of 15 percent between urban and suburban districts.  It is no surprise that our state’s cities also have unemployment and crime rates significantly higher than New Jersey as a whole.

Higher education alone won’t fix our cities’ problems, but it will make a huge difference in the lives of these young people, who can then become leaders within their communities.  Study after study has demonstrated the economic value of earning a college degree.  The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that those with a bachelor’s degree can expect $2.1 million in lifetime earnings, more than $900,000 higher than those with a high school diploma, and more than a million dollars higher than someone without any diploma can expect to earn.  Moreover, regions with higher percentages of college-educated citizens enjoy more civic activism and lower crime rates.

Each of these priorities—individual prosperity, civic participation, and safety—is essential to the well-being of cities, and the more young people we steer off the streets, into classrooms, and on a path to higher education, the stronger our urban communities can become. 

The road to success for these students won’t be easy.  Students selected for the program have described myriad obstacles, including dangerous streets, struggling families, and peer pressure to slack off.  Their statements echo a conversation Rutgers faculty had with formerly incarcerated teens in Newark during the 2008 Faculty Traveling Seminar, which stressed the ordeal of merely surviving in some urban neighborhoods. Even model programs like Weiss’s “Say Yes” have lost students to crime and violence.  But the students chosen as the first cohort of Rutgers Future Scholars have made clear that they want to make the commitment to succeed.

Rutgers is ready to make the same commitment. Program director Aramis Gutierrez and vice president Courtney McAnuff are building a program that adopts best practices from programs like Lang’s and Weiss’s around the country.  It will begin as a pilot in Rutgers’ four host communities, but our hope is to expand Future Scholars to cities across the state and make it a model for the nation.  Mark Murphy of the Fund for New Jersey and Luke Visconti of DiversityInc have signed on to raise funding for the initiative.  Rutgers has also gained crucial pledges of support from the superintendents of each district. 

Indeed, this is just the beginning.  I dare to dream about nine years from now, when the first Future Scholars will be entering their senior year at Rutgers, with eight other groups—potentially 1,600 or more young people—at various stages along the way to a degree.  I cannot predict what paths they will take after college.  But in these young men and women, and others like them, lie the greatest potential and the deepest inspiration for making our cities the great centers they once again can become.


Richard L. McCormick
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey