CAMDEN When Andrea Shoulars moved into Rutgers-Camden over the summer, she said she felt an unexpected sense of calm.
"I thought, 'This is supposed to be so scary, but it's not,' " the first-generation college student said in the student center last week. "Instead it was like, I'm ready, I'm ahead of the game and it kind of feels like home."
Shoulars, a freshmen at Rutgers-Camden, originally from Newark, graduated from the KIPP TEAM Academy Charter School in May. She is one of three KIPP Newark graduates attending Rutgers-Camden, and due to a new partnership, many more may soon follow.
Today, the national network of KIPP charters will announce Rutgers-Camden as the 12th partner on a growing list of universities committed to increasing college graduation rates among low-income students.
The announcement coincides with the 20th anniversary of KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge is Power Program.
Rutgers-Camden joins the University of Pennsylvania, which signed on in 2012, and Franklin and Marshall College, which joined in 2011.
"We realize we're not just trying to create good eighth-grade test takers, we want to get kids to and through college," said Steve Mancini, national spokesman for KIPP. "And to get there, we have to partner with universities to help our kids stay on the path."
College graduation statistics for low-income students nationwide are sobering, with only 11 percent finishing college by age 29.
In KIPP schools, where college is emphasized from elementary age - 40 percent of low-income students graduate from college. KIPP's university partnership program is intended to nearly double that number.
The partnerships are nonbinding - the schools do not have to accept a certain number of KIPP students, nor do they change their admissions requirements, but there is an effort to encourage applicants and to support those who enroll. Rutgers-Camden has signed on to aim for five KIPP enrollees in the 2014-15 school year.
Administrators of Philadelphia's KIPP schools led the push to add Rutgers-Camden to the list. The city has four schools serving 1,500 children and will graduate its first full senior class in May.
Sarah Gomez, managing director of the KIPP Through College program in Philadelphia, helped set up the partnership and called Rutgers-Camden an attractive choice for some of her students.
"Not all of our students are going to be accepted at Penn," Gomez said. "We looked at the current academic profiles of our students and said, 'What's a high-performing, good academic match for our kids? There's a wide variety of schools in the Rutgers-Camden selectivity band in the area. Rutgers-Camden just happens to be doing a very good job of graduating students.' "
Rutgers-Camden also offers Philadelphia students scholarships under the Delaware Valley Scholars program, making their tuition comparable to what they'd pay in-state.
"For some of our students, tuition goes up $15,000, $17,000 just because they cross the bridge," Gomez said.
Rutgers-Camden will also work closely with Newark, where five KIPP schools serve 2,200 students like Shoulars.
Shoulars, who is majoring in biology with an eye toward a career in nursing, said when she got to campus, it wasn't long before the two other KIPP alums found her.
"We grew up as a family, and that unity is still there. If I need anything, they're there," she said.
Nationally, KIPP, founded in 1994, has grown to 141 schools in 20 states. The network serves about 50,000 children, and an estimated 20,000 are put on waiting lists each year.
Students receive rigorous college-prep lessons from a young age, and teachers have students and families sign contracts committing to learning.
The school day typically lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with additional weeks of classtime during the summer.
Nyeema Watson, director of public school partnerships at Rutgers-Camden, said access to information about the college admissions process was a simple but often overlooked topic.
Watson, a Woodrow Wilson High School graduate and first-generation college graduate herself, said the ultimate goal was to support families like hers.
"Everybody wants their kids to go to college," Watson said. "Everybody wants their child to be better than them."
11 - Percentage of low-income students nationwide who graduate college by age 29.
40 - Percentage of low-income students at KIPP schools who graduate.
141 - KIPP schools in 20 states serving approximately 50,000 children.