A ‘boot camp’ approach to the college transition

A six-week summer college transition program designed with the rigor of military boot camp has been helping incoming freshmen students of color make the leap from high school to college—but keeping up can be a challenge. As the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) celebrates its 50th anniversary, The Hechinger Report took a closer look at the intense summer session at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), and its impact on student success.

A cup of water vs. a fire hydrant

Students admitted to NJIT’s EOP—one of 42 such programs across the state that provide money and support services to students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds—endure 15-hour days and supervised study sessions with strict rules. Students are not allowed to use cell phones, laptops, or calculators; they are followed during mid-class bathroom breaks; and if any student breaks a rule, all students face a consequence. EOP students must complete the summer program in order to enroll at NJIT in the fall, and 98 percent of students do so.

Laurence “Tony” Howell, the retiring executive director of the program, drew on his experience as a Green Beret in designing the program. “Sleep is optional, it really is,” Howell said. But EOP isn’t just about building endurance and discipline; it also provides students with mentors, connections, and pocket money. In addition, the program helps incoming engineering students of color review material, preview classes, and make friends. Howell told The Hechinger Report that his job is to fill gaps in knowledge left by area high schools in math, physics, chemistry, English, and study skills.

“It’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant,” said Howell. “We’ve got to let [the students] know that the volume of work in high school is a cup of water compared to the amount of work they’ll be doing in college.”

Creating opportunity after trauma

New Jersey created its EOP after police brutality against a Black taxi driver sparked riots in Newark, New Jersey, during the summer of 1967. After the riots ended, state legislators allocated money to create a pathway for inner-city kids to enroll at and graduate from state colleges.

Although many states created opportunity programs, some have since closed, and the largest remaining programs exist in New York, California, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington. New Jersey’s program serves 13,449 students and has demonstrated that “a carefully structured combination of demanding academics and intensive supports can launch vulnerable students to success during their first year in college,” writes The Hechinger Report.

Most participants in the EOP at NJIT—a college ranked sixth nationally for graduating engineers of color, according to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education—describe the experience as worthwhile. Whereas only 11 percent of low-income first-generation college students nationwide graduate in six years, 55 percent of New Jersey students participating in the Educational Opportunity Fund graduate.

“I can definitely say that EOP is tons of times more strict than college will be, but I still believe that strictness was absolutely necessary,” said EOP student Marko Hernandez. “They knew what was best for me even when I didn’t,” said alumnus Joshua Barker.

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