By Bernie Lombardi, Ph.D., Betsy Kim, Ph.D., Robyn Ince, Ed.M.


As part of our ongoing study funded by the New Jersey State Policy Lab researching potential barriers to youth in Newark enrolling in college, we interviewed seven representatives of community-based organizations (CBOs) working with this population to better understand their work and experiences related to college enrollment trends, community support services to encourage college enrollment, and any other planning services offered to youth in the community. We also conducted a landscape scan of the online resources available about these and other local organizations.

The CBO representatives we spoke to cited a number of barriers that Newark youth face in planning for the future. Limited finances as well as difficulties with the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) were mentioned as the main barriers to college enrollment. Respondents shared their own stories, as well as those of the youth they serve, many of whom had hoped to go to college after high school but put their plans on hold in order to work to support their families. Some CBO representatives have also found that many people in the community are unaware of the resources available to youth in Newark.

A number of respondents also spoke of the challenges that youth in Newark face around mental health that can make it difficult for them to pursue and persist in college. One CBO founder, reflecting on his own experiences with trauma as a youth and the impact it had on his life trajectory, said, “You have to deal with the trauma of these young people first.  The young kids are trying to survive, and that [social emotional piece] needs to be addressed before they can start thinking about school.” As a result, his organization employs social workers to support disengaged youth.

Some young people do not feel connected to their high schools and so they are not interested in continuing their education further. As one CBO representative said, “[Young people] tell me, ‘I’m sick of school, I don’t want to go to no college!” Several CBOs also stated that the youth they work with in Newark may not have the academic preparation necessary for college. In spite of this, we learned through these conversations and with the landscape scan that community leaders are working to fill this gap impacting Newark youth. Organizations like Gateway U, Leaders for Life, Newark Street Academy, and My Brother’s Keeper offer programming that fosters academic success while meeting the socio-emotional needs of the individual.

Mindset often deters young people from going to college. Some do not see themselves as college-going people, and this can be credited to, among other factors, their socio-economic status, the neighborhood they grew up in, the people they are surrounded by, and their family’s history with college. As a result, they do not pursue the support systems available to them. One CBO leader explained: “The majority of our students don’t think about college because it becomes not real to them, it’s like a disconnect, they can’t see themselves pictured into college, so they choose jobs at Amazon or warehouses. They talk about [college], but they don’t have the aspirations to reach for it.”

Another CBO representative discussed the shame and embarrassment many young people and their families feel for not knowing how to pursue college and how this prevents them from asking for help or utilizing the supports available to them. According to her, “What’s happening with supports is shame. In order to seek this ‘thing,’ you have to acknowledge that you don’t know how to do it.” Part of her organization’s efforts focus on teaching young people how to navigate their shame and utilize the supports that are available to them so they can thrive in college and life.

Respondents also spoke of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on college enrollment in Newark. As one CBO representative stated, “COVID had a role in everything. When we were locked down, we were not thinking about college. We were just thinking about surviving.” However, some CBO representatives also felt that the barriers that Newark youth currently face already existed prior to the pandemic as explained here: “COVID exposed the problems we already had, the blemishes in the educational system.”

Respondents also suggested that youth today have changing views about life and career. They may not want to study for two or four more years and, instead, choose to work and reap financial benefits immediately after high school graduation. However, some CBO leaders were concerned that the students may be missing out on a more fulfilling career. As stated here, “Young people want to work, make money and have nice things but they don’t fill that internal need of ‘What am I here to do in this life?’” These leaders also spoke of the dangers of what youth might see on social media citing, “get rich quick schemes [but not] realizing the training and preparation that goes into success.”

In addition to social media’s influence on perceptions, one CBO leader talked about the ways her own generation’s experiences post-college (she is a millennial) have influenced young people’s perceptions. As she said, “They’ve seen my generation go through college, and a lot of us don’t have the career or money that we want. They say, you are struggling, you have loans, [so] I’m not going.” However, the CBO representatives working with this population feel they can make a difference in “changing mindsets” in who can and should go to college as shared here: “I’m starting to see the more we do the work, the more we peel back the layers that they see it’s possible they want to go [to college]. . . If they don’t think it’s attainable, we need to put some spark in them.”

In our next and final blog post, we will report on our findings from our listening sessions, sharing the perspectives of youth who are disconnected from college.