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Jan 19, 2024

Jennifer Murphy Makes Returning to College a Possible Dream

Project Attain! gears up for success. Yours!

By Ed Goldman

In essence, we’re like a concierge, offering education services to people who want to finish what they started years ago,” says Jennifer Murphy. She’s referring to Project Attain!, the nonprofit program she founded at Sacramento State to lure college drop-outs back to school—and in many cases, to the dreams they’d put on-hold.

People who sign up for the service are assigned a “navigator” to help steer them through the sometimes storm-tossed process involved in getting their lives back on course.

Edgy Cartoon

Jennifer Murphy. Courtesy Sacramento State.

Murphy says there are 39 million individuals in the country between the ages of 25 and 64 who started college but didn’t stick around long enough to graduate for “any number of reasons: military, family illness, financial need.”

Last August, Murphy, who’s 54, became the first vice-president for enrollment and engagement at the former California State University Sacramento, making her the newest of the institution’s six veeps. Like most people in higher education-cum administration, she has a multi-page résumé charting her 22-year rise through the ranks at Sac State as well as her earlier gigs.

She still remembers a time when she had zero thoughts of entering academia. For despite the fact that she holds a doctorate in education, an MBA in marketing and a bachelor’s degree in communication, the closest she got to teaching in her younger years was when—while working as a waitress in college at a TGI Fridays restaurant—she was asked to train the other employees. “I think I fell in love with teaching right then,” she says. After an aptitude test convinced her she belonged in college administration, she began to pursue the career she has today.

Murphy, an Eaton, Ohio native, has been with her husband, Terry, a retired civil engineer for the State of California, for 18 years. Between them they have four kids, ranging in age from 21-40 years old, and a two-and-a-half-year-old grandchild, Owen. The couple live in a condo community a few blocks from Sac State. Murphy’s father had been in the field of procurement before going into business for himself as the owner of a plumbing shop. Her mom, now retired and living near Murphy, had taken over the business after his death. “Neither of them was in education,” Murphy says with a smile. She is the couple’s only child.  

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As we tuck into our Caesar salads at Piatti Ristorante, a popular eatery in the upscale Pavilions Shopping Mall in Sacramento, we return to the topic of Project Attain!  “The education landscape is changing and so is the basic model of college,” she says over a Caesar salad. “Colleges and universities used to be set up principally for young people from 18 to 22 years of age. Now more students are from 25 to 30 years old. One in four is over 25 and one in three is a parent.” 

Murphy says potential “come-backers” comprise “a population deserving of our attention. Among the things we may need to recognize and remove are shame and potential trauma (from returning to school). We also want to prevent leakage—people dropping out—while making it easier for dropouts to drop back in.”  

If you’re thinking of returning to college for an associate of arts or bachelor of arts degree—or know someone who fits that profile—you or they can hook up with Murphy’s team of navigators by calling 916.970.0460, emailing info@projectattain.org or going online to projectattain.org. You may find that some of your on-hold dreams can be redialed.

Don’t forget! A new Goldman State Podcast drops every Friday!


Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).