Fewer Newark students enrolled in college during pandemic, report finds

Essex County College
The number of new students at Essex County College in Newark fell by 39% last fall. Overall, college enrollment declined by 43% among Newark Public Schools graduates. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

The pandemic knocked many Newark students off the path to college, resulting in a citywide decline in college enrollment last fall and far fewer admissions to the local community college, a new report finds.

Just under 43% of Newark Public Schools graduates headed to college last fall, a 9 percentage-point decrease from the previous year, according to the new report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey. Essex County College, typically the top destination for Newark graduates, enrolled 39% fewer first-time, full-time students.

Charter schools, which educated about a quarter of the city’s 12th graders in 2020, also saw college-going declines last fall. For example, the share of Marion P. Thomas Charter School graduates who enrolled in college plummeted by 23 percentage points.

In another worrying trend, which Chalkbeat previously reported, only a fraction of students in this year’s senior class applied for college financial aid, suggesting that the enrollment slump could continue. As of June 18, just 34% of Newark Public Schools 12th graders had completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, according to federal data and enrollment figures provided by the district.

Taken together, the data underscores how profoundly the pandemic disrupted students’ schooling and future plans, and suggests Newark will need to redouble its efforts if it wants to steer more students to college.

“We have to do a whole lot better,” said Superintendent Roger León during a panel discussion last week about COVID’s impact on high school graduates.

The pandemic scrambled many students’ college plans. Nationwide, college enrollment fell by an unprecedented 4 percentage points last fall, to 57%. New Jersey’s college-enrollment rate dropped 5 percentage points to 67%. Newark’s rate, while far below the state’s, was similar to the 46% national average for high-poverty schools.

A long list of factors likely contributed to the declines. Most high schoolers couldn’t visit college campuses last year or see their guidance counselors in person, complicating the admissions process. Many students struggled with remote learning, which left some feeling under-prepared for college and reluctant to enroll while college courses were still online. And the pandemic battered many families’ finances, making it difficult or impossible to afford college costs.

Last week’s panel, which Advocates for Children of New Jersey hosted, featured several Newark students who faced such challenges. 

David Daughety, who graduated from Arts High School last year, was admitted to his dream school, the prestigious Howard University. But the costs were too steep.

“It was very, very devastating,” he said, adding that he’s now happily enrolled at Rutgers University-Newark.

After graduating from Technology High School in 2019, Tatiana Arce-Rodrigues headed straight to college. But after the pandemic struck during her second semester, she left for spring break and didn’t return.

“I decided to drop out of college,” she said. “I knew if I was to stay in school and do everything online, it was just going to be a waste of money.”

Halimah Herbert, a 2020 high school graduate, said she struggled academically and emotionally after the pandemic derailed her senior year. And with school fully remote, it was difficult to get the support she needed, including help with college applications.

“We didn’t have guidance counselors readily available, so it was hard in that sense to navigate all that we were going through,” said Herbert, who decided to postpone college and begin working.

Students’ odds of heading to college last fall varied dramatically by school. Despite slight year-over-year declines, more than 84% of students at North Star Academy, a high-performing charter school, and over 78% of students at Science Park High School, a selective magnet school, still enrolled in college. But at four traditional high schools, fewer than a third of students enrolled.

From “Newark Kids Count Data Snapshot: College Students and COVID-19” report by Alana Vega and Peter Chen (Advocates for Children of New Jersey)

Several of those same traditional high schools — including Barringer, Central, and Malcolm X Shabazz — also saw big drop-offs in FAFSA completion this school year, as did a few charter and magnet schools. Across New Jersey, about 63% of students had completed the FAFSA by June 18, a roughly 4% decline from last year, according to a federal data tracker.

Students who complete the application have access to federal grants and loans and, national data suggests, are more likely to enroll in college. This month, the Newark school board approved a new policy that will require seniors to complete the FAFSA, or an alternative form for undocumented students, in order to graduate beginning next school year.

Elisabeth Kim, a postdoctoral associate at the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers-Newark, tracks FAFSA completion. She said one reason for this year’s decline is likely that many students did not get in-person help filling out the complicated form. (More than 70% of high schoolers opted to stay remote even after Newark Public Schools reopened classrooms in April.)

“Many Newark families benefit from in person, one-on-one support from the schools and community organizations for FAFSA completion but did not have as much access to that due to COVID restrictions,” Kim said in an email. She added that some local colleges might accept the FAFSA after the June 30 federal deadline, so students should still consider submitting it.

The new report on Newark’s college enrollment decline, written by Alana Vega and Peter Chen, also noted some ways that local universities have tried to support students. Rutgers froze tuition and fees last year, and allowed students to switch to a pass or no credit grading scale. And the Abbott Leadership Institute, along with Rutgers-Newark and the Center for PreCollege, will launch the Newark Grad Center this summer, which will help high school graduates apply to college and seek financial aid.

Abbott Leadership Institute Executive Director Kaleena Berryman, who moderated the student portion of last week’s panel, praised the students for deftly adapting after the pandemic disrupted their plans. Arce-Rodrigues enrolled in an EMT training program, Herbert found a job at Berryman’s organization, and Daughety was admitted to the honors program at Rutgers-Newark, where he’s now studying political science and public affairs administration. 

To help steer Newark young people back toward college, the students said they need more mental-health services, more individual assistance during the application process, and easier access to the wealth of college-prep resources in Newark. And, Daughety added, policymakers need to put students’ suggestions into action.

“These spaces can’t be a dead end,” he said. “We have to go beyond the conversation to then begin to produce results.”

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