Kean University

Degree-Seeking Success for English Language Learners

Kean University’s Supera program helps Latinx students complete their English as a Second Language requirements at the same time they take courses for their degrees, resulting in higher retention and graduation rates for these students.

A group of Latinx faculty at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, noticed that the small number of Latinx students at the university did not reflect the growing Latinx population in nearby cities. These faculty members, who themselves migrated to the U.S., realized that a large portion of the Elizabeth and Newark communities in New Jersey—and disproportionately the individuals who most recently arrived—were Spanish monolinguals. They learned that the English language barrier discouraged individuals from considering higher education. Before beginning the coursework for their degrees, English language learners (ELLs) were required to complete an English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum at a community college, the primary institutions offering this curriculum for many years. Not only would it take ELLs more time to earn their degrees, but they would also pay more in tuition or have to take out loans to complete their academic programs. In many cases, students became discouraged and dropped out because they simply couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket for their education.

To close this education gap and promote equity, the faculty members created the Supera Spanish Speaking Program in 1972. Nearly 50 years later, the program at Kean University continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of its Latinx student population and the surrounding communities. Supera’s mission is to provide ELLs access to postsecondary education at the university without losing time learning the English language at a community college and without the additional financial burden. Kean University, a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, is the only four-year public higher education institution in the U.S. that allows students to learn the English language and earn college credits toward a degree simultaneously.

Through Supera, ELLs enroll in general education courses taught in Spanish in conjunction with ESL courses. As a result, students can start pursuing their degrees immediately so they can graduate within four to six years. To help orient students to the college experience, Supera also offers a free pre-college summer academy where they take an English course and a college orientation course. Participants learn what to expect as a college student and what is expected of them so they can get ahead on college readiness.

Most of the Latinx students in Supera are the first members of their families to pursue a degree, and they need a lot of guidance and support. Kean University offers academic advisement, student orientation, financial aid assistance, career readiness, resume-writing workshops, internships, and scholarship awareness and references. The university also informs the parents about what their children are experiencing so they, too, can feel encouraged to pursue university courses or a degree and improve their own social mobility in the community. These efforts dovetail into the university’s overarching goal to be an inclusive anchor institution in northern New Jersey that supports all students from generation to generation at every step of their degree-seeking journey—from admission to graduation and beyond in the community.

The Methodology

Kean University’s commitment to inclusivity and equity in student access to postsecondary education began in the 1970s with a committed group of Latinx faculty members who explored one guiding question: Why don’t we have many Latinx students at Kean University when we’re surrounded by Latinx communities? They started asking questions, getting involved in the community, and visiting local high schools and elementary schools. They learned that the English language barrier discouraged individuals from considering higher education. At the time, many schools didn’t have bilingual programs, and sometimes treated students as if they had a learning disability. As a result, many students did not register or apply to postsecondary institutions due to the language and other barriers, including the SAT exam. As a result, since Supera was instituted, Kean University had a lower GPA requirement so that Latinx students who had a late start in high school could be admitted, did not consider SAT scores, and adopted other admission criteria that supported the ELL population. Since 1972, Kean University has maintained its mission of providing access by expanding its services to improve retention and graduation rates. Nearly five decades later, the program was rebranded, and more resources were added to ensure the success of the enrolled students.

Through its services and programming, Kean University has emerged as an all-inclusive, one-stop institution for Latinx, first-generation students who have a lot of questions, doubts, and concerns when they first come to the U.S. Supera uses an advising model and a holistic approach. In addition to providing courses taught in Spanish and individualized advisement, faculty and staff members assist students by:

  • Translating documents they do not understand.
  • Helping them understand how financial aid works so they can complete and submit appropriate paperwork.
  • Assisting them with finding on-campus employment.
  • Providing bilingual tutoring, workshops, and other activities that contribute to students’ success and well-being.

Supera’s success is measured by the number of students Kean University can assist and enroll as well as retention and graduation rates. In 2020, for example, 389 students were enrolled in Supera; in 2023, that number jumped to 520. The program has grown significantly because the university is recruiting differently by making the community more aware of the program, and the Latinx population in northern New Jersey and the U.S. is increasing.

The Impact

Due to university system changes, Kean University’s Office of Institutional Research could not provide enrollment data for SUPERA prior to 2001. However, based on the number of degrees conferred, the office estimated the number of students served to be 2,279. The program’s six-year graduation rate of first-time, full-time students was 47.6% in 2013, 45.9% in 2014, 44.2% in 2015, and 42.3% in 2016, compared with the university rates of 46.6%, 50.0%, 47.7%, and 51.3%, respectively. Considering that program participants are ELLs, they still graduated at a similar rate to regularly admitted students. SUPERA’s one-year retention, or reenrollment, rates have been 73.3% for the academic years 2019–2020, 64.6% for 2020–2021, and 85% for 2021–2022, compared with the university rates of 74.1%, 71.4%, and 74.4%, respectively.

Kean University is working toward increasing its overall university graduation rate to 75%. Supera aims to match this goal within the next five years. Supera’s current graduation rates have been between 45% and 48%, which aligns with the university’s overall rates. However, with the new initiatives implemented in the past few years, Kean University is optimistic about achieving its target rates in retention and graduation.

The university also intends to provide career placement data for its Supera students. Currently, students learn about and explore internships and jobs based on their degrees so they can demonstrate to the community at large that they are using their degree. Even if they are in a different field than their degree may have supported, the university wants to make sure the graduates can secure jobs that allow them to have a better quality of life.

Ultimately, Kean University wants Supera to emerge as a national model that other higher education institutions can follow in service to their communities through academic access and excellence.

Key Takeaways

For a program like Supera to be successful, it must have adequate support and financial resources from the postsecondary education institution. Faculty and staff members should identify whether they have a large population of ELLs in their surrounding community and understand how language can be a barrier for them. With a well-funded simultaneous learning program, these students can overcome this barrier and jump-start or accelerate their careers in areas that would otherwise be unavailable to them or out of reach. The participating students will also need a dedicated team that can guide them through the financial aid application process.

“I tell my students all the time that getting an education is not just about earning a higher salary. Getting a college degree doesn’t automatically get you a higher salary. You can be a truck driver and make good money. It’s about how a college degree impacts the way you think, your view of the world, the decisions that you make, and how you see society differently because of the education you obtained. That is the value of a college education. It’s not just money. It’s the ability to mature and see life from a different perspective.”

Rosa Paulino, director and counselor, Supera Spanish Speaking Program, Kean University

“I am a Supera Spanish Speaking Program student majoring in criminal justice at Kean University. It has been a long journey to get where I am at now, and I can proudly say that without the help of the Supera program, I would not have been able to make such great progress in my academic career. It was a great opportunity for me to be able to improve my second-language skills while at the same time moving forward with my academic career. As of today, I take advantage of all of the support the program offers, such as workshops, counseling, networking, financial aid matters, and supplemental instruction, among other great services. Last but not least, the exceptional aspect about this program is that every student feels like they have a family in the academic environment.”

Criminal justice graduate, class of 2023

“As a student participating in the Supera Spanish Speaking Program, I would like to acknowledge the program for helping immigrant students develop professional skills for college while giving them extra support that they may need. The program of Supera has done an excellent job preparing me with many workshops that taught me how to adapt myself into the college environment. Being part of the program allowed me to participate in many activities that helped me grow in many aspects such as academically, financially, professionally, mentally, and even socially. During the summer of 2021, I also participated in the summer academy that Supera offered, preparing me for college before I even started my first semester. Genuinely, I wouldn’t see myself prepared for college if I didn’t participate in the summer academy of Supera. Their staff offered all of the students the best counseling and support that we could ever have. Furthermore, the program helped me meet new people and make new friends, building a community that makes me feel like I belong. Overall, the program has done an amazing job by taking care of their students and making sure that they have all the support they need as first generation/immigrant students.”

Management science student, class of 2025

“In my opinion, the benefits that I got from participating in the Supera Spanish Speaking Program were guidance, wisdom, and awareness, all of which helped me become a positive and professional contributor.”

Software engineer, class of 2012

“Bend but don’t break is a concept central to orthodontics and is a theme that has defined my life. I am an immigrant dreamer from Ecuador who arrived in the U.S. shortly after graduating high school. My parents moved to the U.S. with the long-term goal of providing my sister and me with opportunities to pursue higher education and professional career. The Supera Spanish Speaking Program served as the catalyst for me to succeed. I was able to further my education to obtain a doctoral degree accomplishing my goal of becoming a dentist and now even further by continuing postgraduate training in orthodontics.”

DMD, class of 2015

“I cannot be more grateful to Kean University’s Supera Spanish Speaking Program for being the pioneers in offering this program for students like me who have the intellect and desire to become a professional but are still trying to make English our second language. I can say that due to the curriculum they offered and the immersion in a multicultural experience that included the extracurricular activities we shared, I am now a successful businessperson. I am the CEO of my own company, serve our community, and can offer jobs to other bilingual individuals.”

CEO, American Financial Consulting Group LLC, class of 2001

“The counselors of the Supera Spanish Speaking Program have a positive influence on the lives of many Latinos in New Jersey, including mine. These counselors guided me and mentored me to become the best version of myself. They encouraged me to work hard for my dreams and always supported me.”

Union County public administrator, class of 2012

“I feel very proud because I am an English Language Learner, myself. I came to the U.S. when I was 15 years old, and I had to learn English while I was in college. I came to Kean University, and because of the services and program that they had and the mission that the institution has of access and excellence, I was able to obtain a degree.”

Rosa Paulino, director and counselor, SUPERA Spanish Speaking Program, Kean University

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