Planned ‘Student Success Center’ aims to help more Elizabeth students get into college

July 24, 2019

The Elizabeth Public Schools and community-based Make the Road New Jersey plan to open a Student Success Center to help more Elizabeth students get into college. The Student Success Center (SSC) is a peer-to-peer training and support network to improve college application and acceptance rates by 20% and matriculation by 15% in its first year.

The need in Elizabeth is particularly acute. 

While the Elizabeth Public Schools (EPS) have made great strides to increase high school graduation and college acceptance rates, challenges remain. About 75% percent of Elizabeth students apply to college from EPS and 59% matriculate the fall following their senior year of high year. As of February 2019, about 40% of EPS students have completed the FAFSA application. Certain high schools within the EPS have much lower application rates – hovering at about 40%.

While college graduation rates correlate with higher incomes, only 12 percent of Elizabeth residents have a college degree. Academic preparation is critical to college success, especially when combined with access and guidance that helps increase students’ chances of college attainment.

Student Success Center: Building College Bound Culture through Peer-to-Peer Training & Support

Student Success Centers (SSCs) are in-school partnerships between non-profit organizations, school districts and students to improve college access for youth from historically underserved communities. SSCs build a college-bound culture by creating a peer-to-peer network of support and providing training and encouragement for students to apply to college. Trained high school students staff the SSCs, with support from adult staff. Staff at the SSCs, which are located inside high schools, provide hands-on support for students, helping them to navigate the college application process.

The first SSC opened in Philadelphia in 2003 and now there are 44 SSCs nationwide that serve 17,000 students annually. No SSCs exist in New Jersey; the program in Elizabeth will be the first. The SSC model of putting youth at the center of the college access process has generated powerful results. Quantitative and qualitative data show that SSCs:

  • Increase the number of students applying for and being accepted into college;
  • Increase the number of students applying for scholarships and federal/state aid;
  • Engage students earlier in the college process;
  • Support juniors to be “college-application ready” upon entering their senior year;
  • Provide needed support to school counselors;
  • Increase family engagement in the college-going process; and
  • Create a positive college-going culture within and across schools.

An SSC launched by Make the Road New York in partnership with a four-school campus in Bushwick, Brooklyn supported 84% of graduating seniors applying to college, with a 97% acceptance rate and 75% FAFSA completion rate. Prior to launching the SSC, the college application rate had been approximately 20% on the Bushwick campus.

How does a Student Success Center work?

Student Success Centers create a student-centered, college-bound culture that permeates a school’s climate, classrooms, and activities and complements the work of school counselors. The program has three elements:

  1. College Ambassadors: (interested high school students) receive 70+ hours of training from MRNJ to cultivate the skills, knowledge, and attitudes they need to educate and assist their peers with the college admissions process. They then commit to providing 10 hours a week of service to their school in the SSC throughout the year. MRNJ hopes to offer ten students ten hours of non-school service throughout the school year. Additional College Ambassadors serve on a volunteer basis.
  2. Drop-In Center: through a partnership with the EPS, MRNJ and students, create a space inside one of the high school campuses, where students can come during lunch, free periods or after school to receive 1:1 intensive college advising, essay writing support and financial aid assistance from College Ambassadors and adult support staff.
  3. Targeted College Readiness Activities: College Ambassadors and adult support staff provide group workshops, trips, and college-awareness programming to all students, parents, and staff/faculty through a regular program series, including in-class presentation and college prep session, college-themed trivia nights and sports tournaments, financial aid application clinics, and parent workshops.

This three-level approach enables the SSC team to increase the knowledge base, skill set, and comfort level of students, parents and school faculty and thus, raise the expectation that students will go to college.

Background on Make the Road New Jersey

Make the Road New Jersey (MRNJ) supports low income and immigrant communities to achieve dignity and respect through community organizing, the provision of high quality legal services, transformative education and policy innovation. Founded in 2014 in Elizabeth, MRNJ now runs two community centers in Elizabeth and Passaic and employs a staff of fourteen bilingual advocates, including four attorneys and seven community outreach workers. The Elizabeth center, located in the Snyder Academy, is a hub of community life. MRNJ provides legal services and ESOL classes to 800 immigrant and low income families each year. Thousands of immigrant community members engage in Know Your Rights trainings, attend community meetings and engage in community outreach efforts with MRNJ.

MRNJ’s Youth Power Project engages thousands of immigrant, low-income youth and youth of color in college access trainings, leadership development programs and Know Your Rights workshops each year. MRNJ is at the forefront in advancing affordable and accessible higher education for all, regardless of immigration status.

MRNJ’s flagship College Ambassador program, launched with seed funding by the Community Foundation of New Jersey, has trained 84 young people in an intensive 10-week, 70-hour summer program. Participants — confident and knowledgeable College Ambassadors — were cumulatively awarded more than $14 million dollars in grants and scholarships, including the Questbridge Scholarship, Ron Brown Scholarship, and Dream.US Scholarship. No graduate of the MRNJ College Ambassador training program has to date had to take out loans.

Ambassadors have hosted more than 45 financial aid workshops across the state, assisting over 1,000 students to complete the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and the New Jersey Alternative Application and provided college access training to 7,000 high school students across the state through classroom and community presentations. 60% of these trainings were held in Elizabeth for EPS students.

What’s next

The Elizabeth Public Schools and Make the Road New Jersey will be working together to build an in-house SSC at a high school campus identified by EPS. MRNJ will host a summer College Ambassador Institute to train 30 students in summer 2019. Ten students will be selected to be year-round College Ambassadors inside a school to launch the SSC in Fall 2019. MRNJ will provide adult support staff throughout the year. An MRNJ employee will supervise the center, train College Ambassadors interested in leading upcoming College Ambassadors Institutes, provide guidance to the College Ambassadors, and liaise with the educators, counselors, and administrators.

The SSC will aim to increase college application rates by 25% in its first year and by 50% in its second year. MRNJ has secured funding for stipends for student College Ambassadors, and can provide in-kind support. MRNJ has secured $55,000 from the EPS and seeks additional support to launch the program in schools in September 2019.

To learn more about the opportunity to support a Student Success Center in Elizabeth, contact Madeline Rivera at or 973-267-5533.