A college degree for social mobility

Upward socioeconomic mobility is something that many families count on when sending their children to college. Their expectation is that earning a college degree will ensure the next generation will be better off economically than their parents and grandparents. This promise of upward social mobility is deeply rooted in the American psyche, especially for first-generation college students and families of color who represent historically underserved populations in higher education.

This was the case for me. I was raised by my grandparents in Alabama during the civil rights movement. As an African American student, the type of higher education institution I chose to attend was critical. I enrolled in a small Historically Black College and University (HBCU), a minority-serving institution (MSI), because I saw it as a place where I could be who I was. I believed I could thrive by directly receiving cultural understanding and support from faculty and professionals who looked like me.

I dared to dream, and after a long career as a faculty member and administrator in academia, I now serve as the first Black and female president of Bloomfield College in New Jersey. It is the state’s only four-year MSI that is both a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) and Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). With its beginnings in 1868 as the German Theological School founded by the Presbytery of Newark, today our small private college reflects the diversity of the local population and has established a solid liberal arts foundation.

Bloomfield College is recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the most diverse liberal arts institutions in the nation. Students benefit from its strategic location in a residential neighborhood just 15 miles from New York City, which offers many entertainment, business and career opportunities.

As an MSI, our day-to-day operations at Bloomfield College are responsive to the specific needs of the student populations we serve. Small class sizes make it easier for students to ask questions and receive responses during the lesson rather than waiting for an appointment during faculty office hours. Such active participation increases student engagement, learning and retention. Smaller classes also allow for greater hands-on learning activities that can help a student apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to the real world.

Additionally, faculty advancement at small private colleges and MSIs like Bloomfield College is centered on quality teaching, not research or publishing. Faculty are expected to mentor students professionally and personally, focusing on the whole student. This allows for students and faculty to forge relationships both inside and outside of the classroom. The bonds that are formed enable the academic advisors to better help students enroll in the necessary classes, achieve their career goals and plan for life post-graduation.

When MSIs like Bloomfield have a smaller enrollment, there is also an increased opportunity for students to step into leadership positions. Aspiring professionals can learn and practice the essential skills that will get them noticed and promoted in the workplace.

Author and Bloomfield College President Marcheta P. Evans with school mascot. (Photo provided.)

These are just some of the important reasons why my husband and I chose to send five of our six children to MSIs. What my grandparents, family and friends knew from personal experience has only recently been statistically proven. As reported by the 2017 Equality of Opportunity Project and the 2018 American Council on Education Brief, upward mobility rates differ among MSI graduates and those who attended non-MSIs. The findings show that, compared with non-MSI schools, four-year MSIs boost a significantly larger number of students from the lowest income quintile to the top income quintile. The difference is more than double.

This is an eye-opening distinction and extraordinarily important for all first-generation Americans and students of color who are considering their college options. It is also why I argue that federal funding for MSIs is critical, not only for individual families but for larger state economies.

The power of a Bloomfield College degree is that it advances the economic standing of the communities in which our graduates live and work, and it culminates in an improved economy for our state since many of our graduates remain and work in New Jersey. Our state is home to 14 private and public MSIs, and these institutions offer a myriad of programs that have the highest potential return on investment. In particular, these programs increase the quantity and quality of much-needed STEM graduates to address the national shortage of health professionals, scientists and engineers.

At Bloomfield College, our 1,500 students choose from more than 50 academic programs, Division II athletics, an active Greek Life and diverse co-curricular clubs and organizations. The student body is comprised of mainly Black and Brown students (82 percent), and approximately 73 percent of students are eligible for Pell Grants (a federal scholarship awarded to students with exceptional financial need). Not only must our students navigate how to afford a college education, but they often also struggle with meeting basic needs due to food and housing insecurity, family health and economic obligations, lack of access to technology and more. Many of these challenges have, of course, been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bloomfield College is dedicated to serving and empowering low-income and first-generation students who have been traditionally marginalized in their ability to pursue higher education. As part of this commitment, the College maintains the lowest full-time tuition rate for any private four-year college or university in New Jersey. Students receive highly personalized attention both inside and outside the classroom for the same or below the direct cost of a public institution. There are no extra fees added to tuition and 95 percent of students receive grants and/or scholarship support. The result is economic mobility for students and families created by well-paying, life-changing jobs.

Change is inevitable. And we remain steadfast in strategically planning to best support our students in a rapidly expanding, global environment. One year ago, Bloomfield established a new, consolidated Center for Student Success that offers comprehensive assistance across the spectrum of academic and career planning needs. The Center supports students through tutoring, writing, career coaching and planning, arranging for internships, networking opportunities and helping with graduate school applications. We also supply numerous special programs that provide extra academic opportunities and support as well as funding from the state and federal government for individuals from low-income families, first-generation college students and individuals with disabilities. It is a constant goal of ours to encourage an active learning environment in our diverse community.

And, as I stated above, Bloomfield’s investment in minority and first-generation students has a real impact when it comes to social mobility. About 22 percent of students who came from families with incomes of $20,000 or less a year moved up to the top fifth of income earners as adults, earning $110,000 or more a year. These statistics are striking, which is why the social mobility of Bloomfield graduates has been noted by U.S. News and World Report, the American Council on Education, and an Equality of Opportunity Project report published in the New York Times.

Social mobility requires a lot of work — on behalf of our college and our students, many of whom work several part-time jobs while studying for their degrees. But Bloomfield’s roots as a Presbyterian college and dedication to equality create a strong and supportive community where students each write their own story. And I constantly stand in awe of their grit and dedication to advancing their lives to reach their personal and professional goals.

Student and alumni stories

NaNa Essel ’22 arrived in the United States from Ghana on August 24, 2014. His father believed that to break their current cycle of poverty a college education was key, so he moved his eight children to the States.

In a recent interview, NaNa shared that his father wanted a better life and education for all his children. At Bloomfield College, this graduate of West Side High School in Newark has immersed himself on campus, becoming a resident advisor, an admission office storyteller and president of the Greek Counsel. He will graduate next May as a creative arts and technology major with a concentration in expanded media and connections at places like VH1 and MTV. He dreams of being a movie producer one day.

When asked if Bloomfield College positioned him for a better life, NaNa replied, “To me, Bloomfield College is ‘bigger’ than most colleges in the sense that I have direct access to people and resources I need and was able to take on leadership roles. Bloomfield has made the ultimate difference in my life.”

Sussex County resident Elizabeth Vogt ’22 commutes an hour each way to attend Bloomfield College. She is a secondary education and math major and a first-generation student with parents who have always wanted “better” for her and her sister. Elizabeth invests a great deal of her energy into her studies. She has said, “Being a Bloomfield McNair Scholar [a student who received a summer research grant] has definitely pushed me to continue my higher education. I know that with each degree, I will have access to higher paying jobs and more success in my field.”

Elizabeth has not gone a single semester without scholarship funding at Bloomfield. Were it not for Bloomfield College, she likely would have attended community college and ultimately graduated buried under student loans. With her ultimate goal of becoming a college professor, that debt would have been difficult to clear.

Bloomfield College students.

In addition to being a McNair Scholar, Elizabeth tutors, works for the admissions office and leads public relations for the Greek Counsel. She is part of the Honors Program and has joined her first sorority. She is a student representative on Bloomfield College’s Student Support Council and the student representative on the Bloomfield College Teaching Center Task Force. She has also been consistently employed through the college’s work-study program since her first semester. During her senior year, Elizabeth will reside on campus as a resident advisor while student teaching at Bloomfield High School.

Bianca Gomez ’23 is a commuter student studying business. Born and raised in Belleville, New Jersey, to a middle-class family, she watched both of her parents work multiple jobs. This instilled in her an unparalleled work ethic.

She said, “I know I need to put my education first in order to get to the next rung in the ladder of life. I will graduate from Bloomfield College in a much better place than I started.”

Bianca is the recipient of numerous scholarships and is an admission office storyteller and a part of the National Society of Leadership and Success. She spends time volunteering in Newark, providing food and care to unhoused individuals and helping with festivals and parades.

Kyle Smith ’22 of Newark is a psychology major and the current president of the Bloomfield College Student Government. Growing up in the West Ward of Newark, he has shared that his life could have gone in an entirely different direction had he not been focused on his education.

He said, “Growing up in an urban community, God forbid, I might’ve been in the streets instead … It’s really true, you can go one way or the other way. Especially when we are younger, we sit here and think that the ‘lifestyle’ is cool, but the more you grow, the more you realize you can be dead or in jail if you stay on that path. I lost a number of friends to the streets.”

Smith found himself at Bloomfield College instead and has worked to improve his life.

A Transformative Degree

Since my arrival at Bloomfield College in June 2019 as its 17th president, I have felt such pride in the commitment of our dedicated faculty and staff who teach and mentor our amazing students who go on to become lifelong learners and make a positive impact in their communities.

Recent alumni who have just graduated from the college are already seeing the transformative benefits of their degree.

Alumnus Tyrone Fernandes ’21 was hired full-time as a harm reduction counselor at the North Jersey Community Research Initiative before he graduated with his degree in biology.

Originally from Georgetown, Guyana, Tyrone moved to the United States when he was 11 and settled down in Newark where he attended a top magnet school, Science Park High School. He has said, “My family definitely struggled to make ends meet, but it was eye-opening for me and made me more ambitious, and more dedicated to academics. Thankfully, I got a full ride from Bloomfield College because I didn’t know how I was going to come up with the funding otherwise. Bloomfield College gave me the opportunity to level up in my life.” Next for him is the University of Delaware, where he plans to earn his master’s degree in public health with a concentration in policy and administration.

Minjee Seol ’21 and Jiwoo Bae ’21 were friends in South Korea, and both arrived at Bloomfield College to study nursing. They were roommates off campus and have gotten to experience the United States together. Minjee plans on attending graduate school and becoming a nurse practitioner. Jiwoo plans to become an intensive care unit nurse. Both have expressed how coming to the United States and choosing Bloomfield College provided them much more opportunity to improve their lives than they would have otherwise had.

Daring to Dream

Encouraging and motivating students to dare to dream beyond what they have previously known is what we do every day at Bloomfield College. Our students and alumni exemplify how the power of a Bloomfield College degree reverberates through their lives and advances the social and economic mobility of the many generations that follow. This extraordinary impact is what a Bloomfield College degree provides for individuals and communities. This is what we call the “Bloomfield Lift!”

Yet there is still so much more work to be done to improve access. It alarms me that a clear path to a college degree is still systemically out of reach for many in communities of color. Studies show a divide in educational opportunities and outcomes between high- and low-income students, pointing to a wide range of economic, health, social and education policies that continue to systemically keep poorer Americans from engaging with the options that are proven to transform economic circumstances.

The challenges for our students are real, but so are the opportunities. Governments, philanthropists and corporations are all beginning to address the need for racial and economic equity like never before. We have known for centuries that higher education is one of the strongest means we have for inspiring dreams, and now there is a broader understanding that aspirations are socially embedded.

Yes, background matters, and I feel encouraged to see many of the most powerful and influential companies in America renewing their commitment to racial equity, pledging to hire greater numbers of Black and other minority talent with an emphasis in growing the number of minorities in corporate positions. It is colleges like ours and our students and graduates who are primed to help corporate America truly execute its commitment to racial and economic equity.

We must persevere in asking our government leaders to stay vigilant in their battle to make higher education accessible. Colleges like Bloomfield are important not only for our students, their families and the generations that follow, but for what they do to make all of America’s communities economically strong.