by Elisabeth Kim, PhD, Bernard Lombardi, PhD, 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 Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) and Garden State Guarantee (GSG) funds 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. The GSG will roll out in Fall 2022 to fund students’ third and fourth years of undergraduate study at a four-year institution. This blog post focuses on the perceptions of college and university administrators about lessons learned from the implementation of the CCOG as well as the rollout of the GSG.

In May-July 2022, we interviewed 31 stakeholders including nine high school guidance counselors, eight parents, three students, two representatives of state organizations and nine college and university administrators from a mix of public and not-for-profit 2- and 4-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, the role of postsecondary institutions in communicating eligibility requirements, and the rollout on the state level.

Several college and university administrators noted that they have found that people are not aware of the CCOG unless they are actively looking for this information, and even those who have access to information often don’t understand how the grant works. As one university financial aid officer stated, “[Students] are not going to have the awareness until they start applying for aid…if a student is not actively thinking about college, they are not going to [seek out information and share it with their parents].” This and other university and not-for-profit administrators acknowledged the state’s efforts at rolling out the CCOG, particularly by way of individual community colleges (i.e., their financial aid websites), but they are also actively thinking about how they can increase awareness, especially as they begin to roll out the GSG. Partnerships with community organizations, such as churches, and private businesses committed to increasing postsecondary opportunities for their employees seem to be the obvious next steps according to administrators. Part of this effort would include providing partners with the tools to clearly explain how CCOG works and its dependency on completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It would also require maintaining momentum over time. As another university administrator pointed out, “[Awareness efforts…] cannot be one and done with new community college cohorts entering each year.” Clearly, COVID-19 impacted community college enrollment, as well as promotional capacities, over the past couple of years. Despite this setback, there has been a noted increase in the number of students receiving CCOG funds in the second and third years of implementation. Some administrators indicated that it takes time to get a program like this going.

Similarly, college and university administrators do not believe that most families in Newark and across the state are yet aware of the GSG. This lack of awareness is due to the fact that the GSG is a new option that has not yet been widely publicized. As a university administrator shared, “The state is missing an opportunity to pat itself on the back. … They are mostly relying on universities to promote it to prospective applicants.” In addition, the GSG can be confusing for families because it is meant to fund the final two years of college and they do not yet understand how it fits with the CCOG. A financial aid officer from another institution stated: “There are so many nuances to [the GSG] that it’s really hard to go out with a bullet point list about what this program is all about.” While it is not likely to drive initial enrollment decision-making, it is hoped that the GSG will serve as a retention tool to encourage completion and persistence. Coupled with the CCOG, this funding package gives the message that NJ supports postsecondary education. “People will hopefully hear a broader message of college promise.” Further, the rollout for the GSG was delayed this year so that postsecondary institutions had to rush to incorporate it into the financial aid packages they were already compiling.

What we’ve learned about the CCOG’s rollout over the past few years can, and should, inform the state’s approach to creating awareness about the GSG. A successful strategy could include increased marketing, such as creating TV ads and mailing postcards for increased understanding, as well as engaging influential community organizations, such as churches and private businesses, and providing them with the tools to effectively promote the GSG so that residents are aware of what’s available as they are considering attending college. In our next blog post, we will discuss the CCOG and GSG from the perspectives of those who are eligible to take advantage of these state financial aid opportunities, namely students and parents.