GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Zaiyana Jackson said she always knew she would attend college.
“For me it wasn’t getting into a college, it was, ‘How am I going to pay for it?’” she said.
The Educational Opportunity Fund program was the answer.
Jackson, 17, of Passaic, is one of 85 incoming freshmen who, for five weeks over the summer, are at Stockton University getting a head start on campus life.
The first-year students, who are all receiving aid through the state-sponsored fund, are participating in the university’s Summer Academy, where they take classes, study and socialize with other EOF students.
The program offers financial and academic assistance for low-income students who are residents of New Jersey.
“It’s a program designed to provide access to institution to individuals who, due to financial or academic unpreparedness, may not get to seek to higher education,” said Maralyn Mason, director of EOF at Stockton.
Each year, about 13,000 New Jersey students participate in the EOF program, according to the New Jersey Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. In 2015, the program had a budget of $40.4 million. Those funds were allocated to 61 programs at 28 public and 13 independent institutions throughout the state.
The funding supplements federal Pell Grants and the state’s Tuition Aid Grant. Students receive grants ranging from $250 to $2,500 per year to cover items such as books, fees and room and board. The institutions are required to provide a match of at least 50 percent of the total budget for campus-based programs.
Robert Stehm, 18, of Cinnaminson, said he first heard of the EOF when he was researching Stockton University.
“Financing college was a serious concern for me, because I’m paying for college by myself, so I was limited in my choices,” Stehm said. “Some of my friends are going to schools (that cost) $50,000 a year, and I can’t imagine just being drowning in student debt by the end of college.”
Stehm, who plans to major in physical therapy, said the summer program has allowed him to connect with other EOF students, make friends and develop a routine prior to the start of school.
“College is significantly different from high school. You really have to know how to manage your time,” he said.
Financial factors tie heavily to academic success, according to Tom Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst from Washington, D.C.
The median family income for students participating in the EOF program is $27,179, providing the opportunity for higher education to students in some of the most financially distressed municipalities in the state.
Mortensen’s analysis, quoted in the state’s annual report on its EOF program, shows that students from the bottom 25 percent in income level have an 18.3 percent chance of earning a four-year college degree.
But for New Jersey students in the EOF program, the outcomes are much better. The EOF program dates to 1968 and over the years, the success rate of the program has grown. The six-year graduation rate for low-income EOF students at four-year public schools in New Jersey is 55 percent.
Mason said students participating in the Summer Academy take two classes, a writing course and a math course. They are tested and placed in courses dependent on their level of achievement. In addition, there is ample study time and assistance.
“It’s all designed to give them a jump start to their freshmen year. We want to make them feel comfortable being on the college campus,” she said.
Mason said many of the EOF students come from schools that don’t have the same resources as more affluent areas. In many cases, the students are first generation college students.
“Some of them unfortunately have been wards of the state. They come from such a variety of backgrounds. Some of them have delayed entry to college for financial and other reasons,” she said.
The program gives them an understanding of what it takes to be successful at college. The students can continue receiving EOF support and grants once the Summer Academy is over.
Jackson’s aunt participated in the EOF program at Rutgers University, so she was familiar with the program.
“I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work, but I didn’t expect a family like we’ve become,” she said of her classmates.
Jackson said the summer academy has helped prepare her for life on her own.
“At my high school they treated us like kids. Here, they do treat us like adults,” she said.