The New Jersey Department of Education now tracks college enrollment numbers in its new School Performance Reports, as part of its effort to grade schools on how well they prepare students for college.
Across the state, 62 percent of recent high school graduates were still enrolled in a two- or four-year-college 16 months after graduating from a New Jersey high school.
Schools in affluent areas have college enrollment rates closer to 90 percent. And in some of the state's lowest income districts they’re as low as 20 percent. Some schools are trying to increase their college-attendance rates by first getting students to see themselves as "college material."
For C and D students like Cesar Alvarado, who attends Orange High School, it can be difficult to see college as an option.
Alvarado is only a sophomore but he thinks it's too late to try to do better in school, so he has another plan.
“I'm going to own my own business, like a restaurant,” he said. “My aunt bought a restaurant and it's making a lot of money right now and she didn't go to college.”
There aren’t many other job opportunities he and his classmates see in their neighborhood.
“You can be a teacher, work at the police department and I guess that's about it,” said student Lucky Guy Louis Charles. “Oh and there's a mechanic shop. If you’re good with cars you can probably go there.”
A lack of opportunity isn’t the only issue that can keep low-income students from investing in their future, says Andrew Blanco, a clinical social worker at the school.
“[There’s] gang involvement, drug use, a lot of single parent homes with the mothers raising the children,” he said. “A lot of violence involving guns on the streets; therefore they have a lot of bereavement that can hold them back academically.”
Many drop out of high school to work with the family.
“And that’s a tough one because the family actually thinks that what they’re doing is the right thing,” he says.
Orange High school is trying to counteract some of these obstacles with two programs that promote college attendance. Jada Gore runs The Space – a school-based program that tries to get low-income students to see that they are the college type.
“Students do have strengths and they have struggles,” Gore said. “Our main goal here, among others, is to focus on the strengths that the students possess and to get them to see that [they] have an abundance of value.”
The school has partnered with non-profits like New Jersey SEEDS and Family Connections. They offer college-prep classes, help with the college application process and take students on campus tours so they can see a world that offers more possibility.
More than 60 percent of the recent graduates enrolled in some post secondary education, which is better than comparable low-income districts.