Jobs for America’s Graduates: Push to save proven program for students in underserved communities

JAG program has proven history of helping kids graduate and get jobs (or more education), uplifting them and their community — so, why is it facing such a massive cut in budget?

Donna Custard, the president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Foundation and, as such, the head of JAG — or Jobs for America’s Graduates New Jersey — fully admits that the nonprofit is not well-known.

“We’re not a household name, but we should be,” she said.

That’s important, now more than ever before, for two big reasons:

  • The program has helped more than 4,000 at-risk high school seniors from at-risk communities graduate and move into postsecondary education and career training that changes the course of their life and their extended family;
  • The program is in line to get a massive funding cut in the proposed Fiscal Year 2025 state budget.

JAG New Jersey, which is present in 18 high schools this year — and has plans to be in 21 next year — had its allocation cut a whopping 86%, from $350,000 to $50,000.

Custard is beside herself.

“The whole purpose of the program is to go into underrepresented communities, find the students that have the most obstacles and challenges that could prevent them from graduating from high school, and get them to the finish line,” she said. “Why would we want to cut that?”

The JAG New Jersey program costs approximately $3.3 million to run, with the foundation responsible for raising $1.1 million — 75% of which comes from major foundations and companies, including AT&T, Deloitte, Withum, Public Service Electric & Gas, Walmart and others.

How important is that additional $300,000 in budget from the state? Without it, Custard said JAG will have to cut three schools instead of adding them.

Even more, the result will cost the state more money in the long run, Custard said.

“Statistics show that students who do not complete their high school education are more likely to have higher unemployment rates, earn less money than those with high school diplomas, have more health problems, be institutionalized at disproportionately higher percentages — costing the economy approximately $272,000 over his or her lifetime in terms of lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and Medicare, higher rates of criminal activity and higher reliance on welfare,” she said.

The JAG program, which works with approximately 40-60 students in the schools where it is based, does the opposite. Custard rattles off how:

“We bring in employers to talk about in-demand industry sectors and career pathways — and then, we base a lot of the curriculum on project-based learning where the kids learn to lead, work as part of a team, understand communications, research and public presentation, all the skills that are very valuable to employers,” she said.

Kids in the program have higher attendance rates and higher GPAs, she said. And a higher outlook on life.

“It’s transformational — and not just for the students, but for their families as well,” she said. “To have a young person who may not have graduated suddenly think, ‘I can go to postsecondary education,’ whether that’s trade school, community college or a four-year institution, is incredible.

“And, if they have younger brothers and sisters, they realize, ‘I can do this, too.’

“So, instead of being a drain economically, they now become an asset economically to their families and their communities.”

Want to support JAG?

You or your company can make a financial contribution here.

You may also attend JAG’s major fundraising event, which will be held June 3 at Hudson Farm in Andover. Click here for more.

It’s important to note that the proposed budget is just that, a proposal. And that the JAG New Jersey program has two big supporters in the Legislature: Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and Assembly Budget Chair Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Newark).

Custard said the two helped restore funding in the past — and hopes they will be instrumental in doing so again. In her mind, it’s an easy call.

“We’re lifting up individuals, their families and their communities — and the economy of New Jersey benefits,” she said. “Cutting such a small amount out of a $56 billion budget — $300,000 — will have a really detrimental effect. It’s going to affect about 300 kids across the state.”

That’s why Custard is eager to get the word out about the unheralded JAG New Jersey program — a piece of the state’s prized education efforts that does not get enough glamour.

“The state and the business community like to hang their hats on the fact that New Jersey has one of the top K-12 education systems,” she said. “And we like to brag about how we aim to bring everyone up. The JAG program does that as well as any other; we need to fully fund and support it.”