NEWARK, N.J. — Stacy Tyndall is exactly the kind of person the city of Newark hopes will stick around. She’s smart, ambitious and involved in the community.
But the high-poverty city near New York probably would have lost her to another part of the country were it not for an innovative two-year-old honors program on Rutgers University’s Newark campus. Tyndall turned down a bevy of offers from colleges in other states to attend Rutgers’ Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC), which brings together dozens of students each year for a residential program that combines rigorous academics with a social-justice focus.
“I applied to a lot of schools — over 20, I think — and I got into every single one,” said Tyndall, with a hint of sheepishness. The 19-year-old sophomore was sitting in her sparsely decorated dormitory suite overlooking downtown Newark, which is about a 15-minute drive from where she grew up. At Rutgers, Tyndall is studying criminal justice and said she plans to be “an old and gray judge.”
“If the HLLC wasn’t here,” she said, “there’s no way I would have gone here.”
The HLLC is one of two on-campus programs offering ambitious students from the Newark area a reason to stay close to home. The other program, the Honors College, has existed for decades; in 2016 it retooled its admissions strategy to attract students with a wider range of academic interests. Both programs are expanding as public universities nationwide start — or tweak — honors curricula to compete with selective private colleges for top students.
Among Rutgers’ goals is boosting the educational fortunes of a city that has some of the lowest rates of college attainment nationwide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, fewer than 14 percent of Newark residents 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree — less than half the national average. And just 4 percent of city residents hold a graduate degree, compared to 12 percent nationally.
That lack of attainment is perhaps not surprising: Until last year, Newark’s public schools had been under state control since 1995, when a state investigation revealed school environments that “virtually assure academic failure.” In September, after Newark students showed academic gains, New Jersey education officials voted to return control of the city’s public schools to the local school board, 22 years after the state Board of Education took over the tattered district.
Rutgers leaders hope that by offering competitive honors programs for students with a passion for equality and justice, they can attract more of the public schools’ top performers and encourage them to stay put to help combat the city’s problems. Both HLLC and Honors College leaders say they’ve been impressed by the academic abilities and social consciousness of local applicants.
Overall, the campus has attracted nearly 60 percent more students from Newark since 2013, the result of a concerted effort by Rutgers and other local groups to boost college-going rates in the city, university officials said.
“We definitely want Newark students to feel like this is a place where they can come and succeed,” said Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, which is playing a key role in the local drive to boost the share of city residents who hold college degrees and other post-secondary credentials from 12.2 percent in 2000 to 25 percent by 2025.
Related: What happens when a college recruits black students others consider too risky?