Creating a college-going culture in Newark, N.J., may seem farfetched. After all, Newark residents aged 25 or older are nearly twice as likely to have dropped out of school before earning a high school diploma as to have earned any type of college degree.

But a collection of city officials, college leaders, community-based organizations and corporations is aiming to reverse such trends. They are all working together, as part of the Newark City of Learning Collaborative (NCLC), in a bold effort to raise college attainment rates in this long-struggling city.

Today, only 17 percent of adults in Newark have earned an associate degree or higher. Comparatively, more than 30 percent of Baltimore residents hold a postsecondary degree. Nationally, the share with such credentials is about 37 percent.

Newark rates One Struggling City’s Bold Effort to Increase its Number of College Graduates

The NCLC is seeking to increase the share of Newark residents with postsecondary credentials to 25 percent by 2025. To reach this goal, more than 51,000 residents would have to hold a college degree or certificate—about 22,000 more than currently do, according to Rutgers University’s Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies, which is coordinating the NCLC’s efforts.

But this undertaking is not just about meeting a target—it’s also about changing the mindset of the city’s students. “We want to see our young people, whether they are in third grade or fifth grade, ninth grade or twelfth grade, come to see that postsecondary education is the only way to go, that things don’t end at high school,” says Jeremy Johnson, Newark’s philanthropic liaison. “To see everybody understand that as a given, that’s really our collective dream.”

The story of the collaborative dates back to 2011 when local foundations and city officials were considering starting a “promise” program, guaranteeing to pay the tuition of Newark students who attended college in the city. But after looking at similar efforts that several states and a number of cities and towns have undertaken to raise college aspirations, they realized that creating such a program would be too expensive. “The philanthropic base is not as big as you find in many other cities,” says Roland Anglin, director of the Cornwall Center.

Despite this stumbling block, talks about how to increase college attainment continued, and in 2014, Rutgers University-Newark received a grant from Lumina Foundation for Education to create the collaborative and pursue the “25 by 25” goal. Newark is one of 75 U.S. cities that Lumina is funding in hopes of raising college attainment rates. (Disclosure: Lumina Foundation is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.)

“Research shows a direct correlation between thriving cities and education beyond high school,” Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president and CEO, said when the grant creating the collaborative was announced. “Increased attainment delivers stronger local economies, greater individual earning power and better quality of life. Every community in America wants that, and we’ve designed this work to give civic leaders the tools they need to be successful.”

Since receiving the Lumina grant, the Cornwall Center has managed to bring 60 organizations to the table, including the Mayor’s office, Newark Public Schools, the city’s five colleges, a network of college readiness and pre-college programs, and companies headquartered in Newark, such as Panasonic and Audible. Members of the NCLC say that having so many groups working together on behalf of Newark’s students is a victory in and of itself. “The fact that folks are realizing that this is bigger than any one organization is really remarkable and a breakthrough for the city, which has been poor for far too long,” says Robert Clark, a senior adviser to the Superintendent of Newark Public Schools. (Clark’s boss, Cami Anderson, stepped down from the post last week.)

The collaborative is attacking the problem of low college attainment rates on many fronts. It is primarily focused on getting high school students into and through college. But it’s also working with groups that are trying to get disconnected youth back into school, and others that focus on helping adults earn credentials.

This summer, the NCLC is working with 800 high school students who are taking part in the city’s youth employment program. Members of the collaborative will meet with these students one day a week for six weeks to help them start thinking about applying to college. After the “Summer Leadership” program is over, the NCLC will continue to keep in touch with these students and encourage them to pursue higher education.

The collaborative has also started meeting with incoming freshmen the summer before they start college to help them navigate the transition. In addition, companies involved in this effort—including Panasonic and Audible—are offering paid summer internships to students once they’ve completed their first year of college.

The NCLC includes 30 pre-college access programs that help motivate and prepare students to apply to college. The groups are seeking to develop common methods for keeping track of students as they move into and through college.

Meanwhile, the colleges in the city—Bloomfield College, Essex County College, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Pillar College, and Rutgers University-Newark—have pledged to enroll a greater number of Newark students. For example, Rutgers plans to increase its enrollment of Newark residents from 6 percent to 10 percent among first-year students, and from 11 percent to 17 percent among transfer students. The colleges in NCLC are also working together to align their standards so community college students from Essex County College, for example, can make a seamless transition into four-year institutions.

Will the collaborative meet its “25 by 25” goal?

Members of the NCLC are optimistic and hope that their efforts will serve as a model for other urban areas. “If we can move the needle on this, it really shows that this could work, not just here but other places,” says Johnson. “We can be that living experiment about urban cities and issues of disadvantaged young people and neighborhoods that are under-resourced.”

Still, some strike a more cautious note, saying that progress may not come as fast as some would like. “We have to find a way for people both nationally and locally to understand that Newark’s problems grew up over decades and decades of the wrong things happening in this city, and you don’t turn that around in a year,” says Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark. “So we can’t let people get discouraged and give up.”

This is an exciting effort that could have a big payoff for Newark. But before the collaborative can meet its goals, it will have to overcome one major shortcoming. That will be the subject of my next column.

This post ran first in The Hechinger Report.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst in the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.