Princeton program is a model for helping low-income students attend college
Sadé Williams cheers as if she is leading a pep rally. “Raise your hand if you can get into college! Raise your hand if you can get into college!”
Twenty-two high school seniors exclaim “Yes!” and proudly wave their hands in the air.
The group’s enthusiasm and confidence are thanks to the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP). The students from Ewing, Hamilton, Lawrence Township, Princeton and Trenton, New Jersey, are mostly from low-income families. Many will be the first in their families to attend college. They are high-achieving students with limited resources and little knowledge about getting into college.
Williams, a college instructor at PUPP’s annual summer institute, knows how the students feel. She completed PUPP in 2010, graduated from Middlebury College in 2014 and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Temple University. She is among the more than 400 public school students who have participated in the tuition-free PUPP program since 2001.
A recent study by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has quantified PUPP’s longtime work helping low-income and first-generation students achieve in college and beyond.
The study is unequivocal: “The proof is in the pudding: PUPP has a record of success that is unassailable.”
PUPP is supported by and based at Princeton University. Its comprehensive and personalized approach — an intensive three-year program during high school and continued support through college — has become a model for other college access programs.
“The research is clear on the need for programs like PUPP,” the study said. “Many college preparation programs have tried to improve the likelihood that low-income students will go to college and reverse discouraging trends of low graduation rates. Few college access programs, however, have succeeded as well as PUPP.”
PUPP alumni have a nearly 70 percent graduation rate at a wide range of selective colleges and universities around the country. The graduation rate is above average for students overall and dramatically higher than the average for students from similar low-income, first-generation backgrounds.
“Most of these students graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. They are extraordinary students and the very portrait of America’s future,” PUPP Director Jason Klugman said. “Princeton shows how a university can leverage its resources, its expertise and its commitment to service in order to create a community that can excel; to create opportunities for these young people to be their best selves.”
PUPP’s record of success
After more than 15 years helping high school students from communities near the Princeton campus, PUPP leaders commissioned ETS to evaluate the program’s strengths and identify areas of growth.
ETS collected data and feedback from PUPP scholars (as the students are called while in high school), PUPP alumni, families of PUPP participants, high school guidance counselors and administrators, college admission staff, leaders of college access programs, and other sources.
“It’s clear that PUPP’s success rates are attributed to its comprehensive and multiyear approach,” the ETS report said.
The PUPP approach includes a broad set of components to nurture the social, emotional and intellectual talents of scholars. These components include:
- a rigorous college preparatory curriculum that requires attendance at its annual summer institute and after-school enrichment activities for all three years of the program;
- college counseling and test prep to help students navigate the complex admission and financial aid processes;
- ongoing social supports through peer relationships and mentoring;
- encouraging family involvement; and
- providing long-term support to ensure college and career success.
“We are raising these students’ aspirations and expectations,” Klugman said.
The ETS report confirmed that PUPP scholars demonstrate strong academic outcomes in high school, college and beyond:
- more than 90 percent of scholars remain in the program and graduate from PUPP their senior year of high school;
- most scholars “perform very well in high school”;
- nearly 100 percent of PUPP alumni enroll in college, with nearly two-thirds enrolled in highly competitive schools; and
- a third of PUPP alumni enroll in graduate or professional degree programs after college.
According to ETS, educational research has found that the more competitive the college or university, the higher the likelihood that low-income students will graduate, attend graduate school and earn better incomes.
“These students succeed because of the full financial aid, support resources, academic and career opportunities at highly selective [colleges and universities],” the ETS report said.
This is why PUPP strives to help students gain admission to selective institutions. In 2018 alone, PUPP scholars were accepted at schools ranging from small liberal arts colleges like Gettysburg, Hamilton and Vassar to Ivy League universities like Princeton, Harvard and Columbia.
“PUPP gave me everything,” said Michelle Mora, a PUPP alumna attending Franklin and Marshall College. Mora was a teaching assistant at this year’s PUPP Summer Institute. “My parents are from Costa Rica and did not attend college, plus the education system is very different there. They did not know anything about applying to college in the U.S., so PUPP guided me through every step of the process.”
Lisa Roth, a guidance counselor at Ewing High School, said it’s challenging for a large public school to provide personalized guidance in the same way as PUPP.
“I’ve had students who were in the PUPP program who have gone on to Duke, to the University of Pennsylvania,” Roth said. “They certainly would not have been guided to apply at home, and it is hard for a public school counselor to guide hundreds of students through each step of the process.”
The ETS report said students appreciate PUPP for exposing them to a range of colleges and universities, and encouraging them to find their best match. Students said PUPP helped them attend a more selective university than they otherwise would have.
“If it wasn’t for PUPP, I never would have applied to a woman’s college. I was like no way!” said Tia Outlaw, a 2018 PUPP graduate who will attend Mt. Holyoke this fall. “PUPP did a great job of shifting our perspectives and teaching us to take in all the opportunities. I visited Mt. Holyoke last year and fell in love with the campus. It has a great sense of community, which is important to me. I sat in on a class and felt comfortable enough to answer questions, even though I was not a student there yet.”
Although some PUPP alumni surveyed by ETS said they still faced academic and financial challenges in college, they credited PUPP’s preparation for their smooth transition and success in college.
From local program to national leader
PUPP was founded by Miguel Centeno, the Musgrave Professor of Sociology and professor of international affairs. PUPP fulfills Centeno’s dream to advocate for students from families like his: low-income, first-generation and oftentimes immigrants to the United States.
“[Centeno] believed that great institutions like Princeton had an obligation to educate students with a diversity of interests and backgrounds, including low-income students without the means to compete with wealthier students who had access to better schooling and college preparation,” the ETS report said.
Centeno and John Webb, former director of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation, conceived PUPP as a holistic and high-touch program. For many years PUPP was part of the teacher preparation program. It now resides within the Office of the Dean of the College, along with University programs geared to low-income and first-generation students at Princeton.
While some PUPP scholars do attend Princeton, the program’s mission is bigger than the University. In fact, the ETS report said PUPP leaders could help administrators at Princeton and other universities understand the unique needs and challenges of low-income and first-generation students.
“I’m proud to help Princeton lead the national conversation about college access and preparation for underserved communities,” Klugman said.
The ETS report called PUPP “a college access program laboratory” and said “the time is right for PUPP to expand its role as a thought leader in the college access field.” The report recommended more resources to allow PUPP to broaden in this way.
PUPP has served as a role model for other universities, such as the College Prep Program at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Dr. Klugman was extremely helpful and incredibly gracious and generous in sharing best practices, feedback and perspectives on ‘lessons learned,’" said Leah Merrifield, Washington University’s associate vice chancellor for community engagement and St. Louis college readiness initiatives.
Merrifield continued: “PUPP was one of the early programs sponsored by a selective college or university and demonstrates the value of this type of investment in local communities. The completion of a college degree has the potential to change a student’s life. Though our numbers are small in comparison to the need, collectively we are positively impacting hundreds of lives each and every year.”
Greg Moyer, director of admission recruitment at Dickinson College, said “PUPP has a model that demonstrates real success and thinks of the many variables that go into success on a college campus.”
Moyer said PUPP helps Dickinson connect with “sharp and talented” students from underrepresented backgrounds.
“The students really benefit from the incredible knowledge of PUPP staff. PUPP really opens doors for them,” Moyer said. “A family could quickly write off a school like Dickinson if they just looked at our sticker price, but someone at PUPP says to the family, ‘this school is possible because of financial aid and we can help you through this process.’"
The benefits of programs like PUPP can extend beyond the students and schools who participate, Moyer added.
“At Dickinson, we think about how students will go out and create a better world,” he said. “So you are not just improving the students’ lives. Maybe these students will return to their communities after graduating college and lift up other people there.”
Moyer encouraged more universities to consider PUPP’s lead.
“Not every school is positioned to do this, but there are some universities who could afford to use their funds like Princeton has done in supporting PUPP,” Moyer said. “It would be a wonderful thing if there were more national models like PUPP for college success.”
Roth, the counselor at Ewing High School, agreed. “I’ve seen my students in PUPP gain confidence, aim higher, learn about opportunities they never knew existed. I just wish the program was bigger or there were other programs out there so more students could benefit.”
The whole student
First-generation and low-income students often have “the dual pressures of college and home life responsibilities,” the ETS report noted. “These pressures can prevent some first-generation students from persisting in college whereas PUPP alumni have been well prepared to deal with such challenges.”
PUPP prepares their scholars for college life by cultivating the “whole student.”
“PUPP is designed to holistically focus on developing the whole person — nurturing academic and social-emotional skills and cultural competence — through personal relationships, individualized instruction and cultural experiences,” the ETS study said. “On top of this, PUPP also seeks to help meet the basic needs of scholars’ families to enable scholars to focus on their own learning and development.”
PUPP helps students improve their writing and math skills, raise their test scores and complete their college applications. PUPP also teaches them mindfulness through yoga, takes them on college tours and trips to Broadway, and connects them with a support network and caring community.
“More and more, I’m thinking about wellness; mental and physical wellness of our students and the safety of their community,” Klugman said. “They can’t engage in something like test prep if there are more pressing concerns at home like food insecurity. You can’t have a program that is just math and science and test prep, particularly for this group of students.”
Kadija Yilla, a Ewing native now at Pomona College, recalled how PUPP Assistant Director QuinnShauna Felder-Snipes took time to help her mother. Yilla’s mother immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone and wasn’t familiar with the college search process. Her mom also was uncomfortable with the idea of Yilla attending a college in California, 3,000 miles from home.
“Mrs. Felder-Snipes sat my mother down and walked her through my financial aid package and assured her I was going to be fine,” Yilla recalled in the ETS report. “She even explained definitions and terms that my mother didn’t know. She ultimately assuaged her concerns.”
The community focus of PUPP is most evident during its annual graduation ceremony, where beaming families, friends and high school teachers fill every seat in Friend Center Auditorium.
Emma Gaitan of Lawrence Township has experienced the pride of attending two PUPP graduations. Her older son, Joshua, now attends Colgate University and her younger son, Fernando, will start at Wesleyan University in the fall.
“I love the PUPP program,” Emma Gaitan said. “PUPP means to me a good future for my kids. They open the door for a good future. PUPP can be hard, but it’s worth it.”