Tu Nguyen wanted to drop out of college before she began.

As part of a pre-orientation summer program at the College of New Jersey in 2012, she took a race, class, and gender class and turned in her first-ever college essay.

She felt good; Nguyen, a top student at Camden County Technical Schools in Pennsauken, had sent it to a high school teacher, who complimented the essay.

It came back a C-minus.

"I got my grade back and I cried. For two straight days I was crying," Nguyen said.

"Transitioning from the top of your class to you're below most of the students in the class was a tough transition for me," she said.

Now, four years later, Nguyen is graduating from TCNJ with her bachelor's degree in interactive multimedia and has accepted a market-data analysis job in Princeton with Bloomberg L.P.

What kept Nguyen in school, she said, was the family she found in her fellow students in TCNJ's Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program.

TCNJ's is one of 41 state-funded EOF programs in New Jersey, designed to provide additional support to more than 13,000 educationally and economically disadvantaged students, many of whom - like Nguyen - are the first in their family to attend college.

"Without EOF, in the fall semester, I would have dropped out, because I didn't know where to go," Nguyen said.

The College of New Jersey this year is graduating 74 of the 106 EOF students who came to campus four years ago, giving the program a four-year graduation rate nearly equivalent to the school's overall rate.

From 2003 to 2015, the college's four-year graduation rate rose about 10 percentage points, to 73.1 percent. But EOF students lagged behind, with the last three years seeing graduation rates of 53.5 percent, 34.1 percent, and 50 percent.

Improvement has been gradual.

In 2013, a new director took over. Additional staffers were hired and the program was revamped. The intensive summer introductory program was made more personalized, mandatory adviser meetings were increased, workshops and courses on nonacademic success skills were created, and students' progress toward graduation was more closely monitored.

"We call it an on-track model," said Tiffani Warren, who joined the program in January 2013 as associate director and four months later became its head.

"I'm very data-driven," Warren said. "What is the data telling us, what is that story, and where do we need to put our energy?"

Many of the changes fit with a new advising model, known as "intrusive" or "proactive" advising.

At the college, EOF students must get signed approval from faculty advisers before registering for courses; if they want to withdraw from one, they must talk to EOF and faculty advisers.

The five-week summer orientation program was made more intensive, going from four days a week to five.

Nonacademic skills, such as time management and organization, also play a big role in student success, Warren said.

The EOF program "really builds around the grit that they need in order to be successful at this level," she said.

Focusing on those skills is particularly important for first-generation students who may come from less-rigorous high schools, said Charlie Nutt, the executive director of the nonprofit National Academic Advising Association.

"So much of being successful in college is teaching students what they need to know and do and value to be successful, way far beyond the content matter in courses. That's probably the easiest thing to do, is the content matter in courses," Nutt said. "It's all these other skills that are the pieces that are difficult but students have to know."

But, Nutt points out, aggressive advising programs such as EOF require resources: time, money, personnel.

New Jersey provides funding for the program, and schools provide additional funding. The College of New Jersey had one counselor, one director, and one short-term "emergency hire" when Warren took over. There are now three counselors, the director (Warren), an associate director, and a support staffer.

R. Barbara Gitenstein, the president of TCNJ, acknowledged that success programs can be expensive. But getting students to graduation is an important goal that ultimately reduces costs and better serves them, she said.

"If that's a priority, that's where you put your money," she said. "There are some other things we're not doing, because we're doing this, but I'm OK with that."

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