By Elisabeth Kim, Ph.D., Bernard Lombardi, Ph.D., and Robyn Ince, Ed.M.

The Newark City of Learning Collaborative (NCLC) and the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University-Newark are working in partnership with the New Jersey State Policy Lab to explore the implementation and impact of the Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) and Garden State Guarantee (GSG) financial aid programs in Newark, New Jersey. The CCOG and GSG aim to make college more accessible and affordable to low-income New Jersey residents, limiting out-of-pocket costs, and thus, future debt. Inaugurated in Spring 2019, the CCOG funds two years of community college in all 18 county colleges in New Jersey. The GSG is rolling out in Fall 2022 to fund students’ third and fourth years of undergraduate study at a four-year, public college or university in New Jersey. This blog post focuses on the perceptions of students and families about lessons learned from the implementation of the CCOG as well as the rollout of the GSG.

From May through August 2022, we interviewed 37 stakeholders including nine high school guidance counselors, nine parents, eight high school and college students, two representatives of state organizations, and nine college and university administrators from a mix of public and not-for-profit two- and four-year colleges and universities (e.g., financial aid officers, senior leaders, and pre-college program staff). Key questions focused on awareness about the CCOG and GSG, sources of information, and challenges.

Parents

Overall, parents were largely unaware of state financial aid opportunities like the CCOG and GSG, citing a challenge with ease of accessing information. As one Newark mother explained, “It’s very difficult for a family with a first-generation student going to college. This is all very new for us. The information that is more direct is very difficult to come by. You have to search the internet, go to the workshops and find a way to help your child. And even then, it’s very hard.”

While parents appreciated the support provided by local schools and community organizations, they suggested that these providers should start earlier than junior year in sharing information. One parent said, “I actually think that they should start giving [students] a heads-up earlier so that they won’t be overwhelmed.”

Even when parents knew about state financial aid opportunities, they did not always take advantage of them. For example, one parent shared that she knew about the CCOG but did not want to send her child to community college because she wanted her child to have better opportunities than she had. “As a community college graduate, I wanted a better job so I pushed forward for my bachelor’s degree. Now my kids are looking up to me.” She went on to say, “My daughter’s thinking ‘I’m only going to community college if I can’t afford college — like a last resort type of thing.” Instead, this parent opted to pay tuition out-of-pocket to a private four-year college out of state. Another parent recounted receiving a letter from the state about a scholarship her child had received due to her high GPA but she chose to send her to her first-choice school, a private, out-of-state college focused on her major—visual arts. “They wanted to pay all her college, but unfortunately, it wasn’t what she was looking for.”

Students

Students also felt the pressures to attend four-year colleges. A current Newark undergraduate stated, “My family really wanted me to go to a four-year school.” Another Newark undergraduate who is going on to graduate school shared, “I particularly wanted to go to a four-year institution. I was very stubborn about it, but now that I am where I am, I wish I had taken a different route because it would have been much more affordable and probably a different experience.” He continued, “I always tell my friends who are trying to go to four-year institutions to go to community college because in the first two years you just take the required courses. Then, when you choose your major, you can do the last two years at a four-year college. If I had known more information about community college, that would’ve been a better way to help me pay for my college and pursue my career.” This reiterates the point that parents made about the need for providers to share information with students earlier in their high school career so that they can have the pertinent information needed to make informed decisions.

High school and college students, most of whom were hearing about CCOG and GSG for the first time, expressed excitement about its existence. Even students who were past eligibility in their college career were happy that their younger peers would have the opportunity to possibly receive the funds. Yet, they suggested that information about the grants needs to be accessible and target their population’s needs. For example, one student mentioned, “I remember seeing a TikTok where a girl shared specific financial aid terms in Spanish.” Also, students noted that when and how information is shared makes a difference. They may not be able to attend meetings during the day and would prefer posts on social media such as TikTok that provide information about state financial aid and the FAFSA opportunities, that they can then pass along to friends and family. Students also said that it would be helpful if their high schools shared information about these opportunities with them to help inform their college choice: “Starting from high school…they could list the grants [to] give students a chance to know about them.” Students also spoke of the importance of “culturally relevant marketing” and getting out into the community so that residents are aware of what is available as they are considering attending college. The state’s current efforts are not always reaching those who need it the most. “I know millions of dollars go into marketing but it’s just not in the right place.”

Knowing this, how can we work with families in more meaningful, robust, and timely ways to help give them access to the information and understanding necessary to inform their decisions? We see this as a crucial time, as the pandemic eases and state financial aid opportunities such as CCOG and GSG gain momentum, to reengage families and students with information they need to help to inform their vision and aspirational goals for their future – in particular, through targeted sharing of information…early and often.

By deepening existing partnerships with key stakeholder groups, establishing a “feedback loop” with families and students, and intentionally providing targeted resources and supports (i.e., college and financial aid advising, near peer mentors, workshops on completion, and other supports identified in our Listening Sessions) – students will be able to better navigate the college pathways necessary for effectively accessing and transitioning to college.

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