The Educational Opportunity Fund, the state’s nearly half-century-old program providing both personal support and financial aid for low-income students entering college, rarely gets a shout-out – especially when it actually sees a funding increase.
But the program, first funded in 1968 under former Gov. Richard Hughes, was in the spotlight last week when Democratic leaders hosted an event to promote both its historical gains and its more short-term ones.
The immediate achievement celebrated was a $1 million increase in state funding, which was pressed by Democratic leadership but also ultimately endorsed by Gov. Chris Christie in the final budget adopted for fiscal 2016.
The unusual part was that Christie initially cut EOF funding by $1.6 million for next year, only to eventually acquiesce to both restoring and increasing the funding, which will total $41.4 million for the year, providing help to nearly 20,000 students.
“It’s good to be running for president sometimes,” said state Sen. Ronald Rice Sr. (D-Essex), alluding to Christie’s campaign for the GOP nomination for president.
Last week’s event was a roundtable of students and policy-makers held at Rutgers University-Newark, where the young voices of the EOF met with the people making the decisions about the program’s fate.
Leading the latter were top Democratic legislators, starting with Senate President Steve Sweeney and state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), along with Rice, who was credited with winning the additional money,
“I’m thrilled that even in bad budget times, with Sen. Rice’s advocacy, we were very clear to how important this was,” Sweeney said in a meeting with students.
The voices of those going through the program were more poignant, represented by dozens of current and former students at Rutgers, New Jersey Institute for Technology, and Essex County College, among other schools.
Opening the testimony was Kahlil Williams, a Newark native now at Rutgers-Newark, who said the EOF program was a lifeline both socially and financially. He listed a series of public housing projects where he grew up, and said the EOF’s staff and counselors helped him make the transition to college.
Currently serving about 17,000 students, the program is a mix of counseling and scholarship help, starting before the students even enroll. Williams and others alluded to a support network of both students and staff..
“If not for EOF, I wouldn’t be enrolled today,” Williams said.
“They saw a potential in me,” he said. “They believed in me more than I did myself.”
Also on hand was Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, continuing to raise his statewide public profile while also using the opportunity to meet beforehand with Sweeney and Ruiz.
Former principal of Newark’s Central High School, Baraka said the EOF was a critical pathway for dozens of his graduates. And at almost 50 years old, he said, the program’s history speaks for itself.
“I know many who would not be college if not for EOF, period,” Baraka said.
The mayor recalled how the program was born out of the aftermath of the Newark rebellion, a balm to the state’s deep wounds at the time that continues to serve thousands of young people.
“There is a huge and deep history to this program, one that has affected hundreds of thousands of students over the decades,” he said.