Oprah Winfrey gives $5 million boost to college-prep program with Newark roots

For more than two decades, the nonprofit Pathways to College has helped propel Newark students towards higher education. Now the group is getting a big boost of its own — from Oprah Winfrey.

On Thursday, the media mogul and philanthropist announced a $5 million gift to the New Jersey-based after-school program, which helps high schoolers develop leadership skills and apply to college. Already based in three Newark schools as well as other sites across the country, the nonprofit hopes the major new grant will help it expand its services in Newark and beyond.

“We want to share this broadly,” said Judith Berry Griffin, the group’s founder and president. The program “can help our children do the one thing that makes the most difference in the world in terms of what they’re able to do — that is, to get a college education.”

Today, fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — a rate that has increased over time, but which remains lower than the state and national averages. City, school district, and higher-education leaders have joined forces in an effort to get college degrees in the hands of more Newark students. And Newark schools chief Roger León, who attended the Thursday event where Winfrey’s gift was announced, has vowed to strengthen the city’s high schools and tap the expertise of partner organizations in order to better prepare students for college.

With its new infusion of funding, Pathways to College hopes it can support that citywide effort. Griffin said she would like to see the program expand to serve all six of Newark’s non-selective high schools — where just 14% of graduates earn college degrees — even as it launches in additional cities.

“Newark is going to be the showcase, the model,” she said.

Judith Berry Griffin (front center) started Pathways to College in Newark in the 1990s. (Photo credit: Bob Gore)

Pathways to College has worked with more than 4,000 students from Detroit to rural Arkansas, but its deepest roots are in Newark. 

In the early 1990s, Griffin began mentoring a group of Newark students every weekend. A former principal, Griffin at the time was president of A Better Chance, a scholarship organization that sends students of color to elite public and private schools. But she believed that young people in traditional schools deserved similar opportunities. 

As the Newark group grew, it moved between borrowed spaces — classrooms at Barringer High School, backstage at Newark Symphony Hall, a meeting room at Metropolitan Baptist Church. By 2003, Griffin decided to turn the group into its own nonprofit, which became Pathways to College.

Today, the program operates in Arts, East Side, and Central high schools in Newark, and has been in 20 other locations across the country, Griffin said. Led by specially trained teachers at the schools, students get help researching colleges, applying for financial aid, and touring campuses. They also meet guests and complete projects designed to build skills, such as critical thinking and goal-setting, that will prove essential in college.

“It is a program that works to nourish what people are now calling ‘soft skills,’” Griffin said, “which research has shown are as important as the academic skills that students will bring to college.”

The program boasts strong results: 100% of its participants are admitted to college, 90% enter college, and about 70% remain in college after their first year, according to Pathways — rates far higher than the national average. And unlike some college-prep programs, Pathways does not only serve top-performing students; its application probes students’ interests and passions, but does not ask for their test scores.

Despite its apparent accomplishments, the group has sometimes struggled to make ends meet. In Newark, it has relied on district funding and private donors — including the Turrell Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge and Victoria foundations — to pay teachers and send students on college tours. (Dodge and Victoria also provide funding to Chalkbeat.)

“There was always a troublesome gap between the amount of money the schools were able to give us and the amount that we could raise,” Griffin said.

That’s where Oprah comes in. Winfrey, who gave $500,000 to Newark’s West Side High School last year, has long promoted Pathways to College. She helped the group publish a college-prep guidebook, and donated a portion of the proceeds from an Oprah-branded tea to support the group’s mission. 

Griffin said that the $5 million gift from the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation will enable Pathways to grow, though the group will continue to fundraise. The Newark school district provided some funding this school year, Griffin added, but she is waiting to learn whether it will continue or expand that funding next year.

One champion of the program is Valerie Valle, a senior at Arts High School. She said her two years in Pathways to College has boosted her confidence as she listened to guest speakers — a lawyer, a doctor, a video producer — and tutored her younger peers, modeling how to write a winning college essay.

The program’s teachers took her to Swarthmore College for her first-ever campus tour — “It was really a breathtaking experience” — and helped as she applied to a dozen colleges. Seven schools have already accepted her, including Johnson & Wales, a private university in Rhode Island that offered her a full-ride.

“Pathways was like this extra stepping stone,” she said. “Not that I wouldn’t be successful, but I wouldn’t be as successful as I am now and as I plan to be.”