COVER STORY: School Is In For the Summer
Photo courtesy Lone Star College System
C O V E R S T O R Y
School Is In For the Summer
Study Shows College Bridge Programs Yield Mixed Results
By Paul Bradley
These are not the lazy, hazy days of summer for growing numbers of prospective community college students. For them, the summer before college is not time to hit the beach — it’s time to hit the books.
These students are taking part in developmental summer bridge programs, a strategy growing in popularity as a way to reduce the swelling stream of community college students into traditional developmental education programs. Research shows that only a fraction of community college students placed into traditional developmental courses ever manage to earn a degree.
The bridge programs provide accelerated, focused and intensive learning opportunities over a five- to six-week period to help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed for college success. The goal of the programs is to increase college readiness among recent high school graduates, especially those from low-income and minority groups whose skills may be lacking even after earning a high school diploma. Typical developmental sequences, by contrast, can stretch over several semesters.
But little empirical research has been done on the effectiveness of the programs — until now.
A new study by the National Center for Postsecondary Research found that the programs are producing promising but mixed results. The study found positive impacts for students over the first 18 months after completing a bridge program and entering college, a time period when they are most likely to drop out of school.
Students who took part in a developmental bridge program were found more likely to take and pass college-level writing and math over the first five semesters after taking the program. But the study also found that benefits for students fade after two years, and that the bridge programs have little or no effect on persistence or credit accumulation.
“There are some gains pushing students toward college-level math,” said Heather D. Wathington, an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “But the gains appear to be short-term. It’s like a booster shot. You need it, but these students are coming in with significant deficits. They have taken years to accumulate, and they can’t be undone in just a few weeks.”
The two-year, random assignment study looked at summer developmental bridge programs at eight Texas colleges: El Paso Community College; Lone Star College-Cyfair; Lone Star College-Kingwood; Palo Alto College; San Antonio College; St. Philip’s College; South Texas College; and Texas A&M International University.
All of the colleges except for TAMIU are community colleges, though South Texas College offers a bachelor’s degree program in applied technology. TAMIU, as an open-admissions institution with large numbers of minority and low-income students, shares many of the characteristics of the community college.
Looking at Texas
Texas was selected for the study because the state has enthusiastically embraced summer bridge programs as a way of increasing the number of college graduates produced by the state. Part of the state’s “Closing the Gaps by 2015” initiative was the creation of developmental summer bridge programs — intensive summer experiences that offer eligible students remedial instruction in math, reading or writing, along with an introduction to college. During the past several years, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) has provided financial support to colleges establishing developmental summer bridge programs.
The study comes at a time when developmental education is under assault by politicians and policymakers frustrated with their growing costs and questionable effectiveness. Ohio recently joined 21 other states and higher education systems eliminating funding for remedial education.
The National Center for Postsecondary Research uses rigorous research methods to evaluate programs used by two- and four-year institutions and boost college readiness. NCPR is housed at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, and is operated in collaboration with partners MDRC, the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and faculty at Harvard University. The center was established in 2006 and is funded by a grant of $9.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The study tracked a cohort of about 1,300 students, mostly recent high school graduates, divided into study and control groups, starting in 2009. Students attended the developmental summer bridge programs for three to six hours a day for four to five weeks and received instruction in at least one area of academic need — math, reading, or writing — and guidance in the “college knowledge” needed to navigate new academic terrain.
All of the developmental summer bridge programs included four common features: accelerated instruction in math, reading, and/or writing; academic support; a college knowledge component; and the opportunity to earn a $400 stipend.
The following are the most important findings from the study:
- The programs had no discernible effect on the average number of credits attempted or earned. Program group and control group students attempted the same number of credits (30.3). Students in the program group earned an average of 19.4 credits, and students in the control group earned an average of 19.9.
- The programs had an impact on first college-level course completion in math and writing that was evident in the year-and-a-half following the program, but no impact on first college-level course completion in reading during the same period. On average, students in the program group passed their first college-level math and writing courses at higher rates than students in the control group during this period. By the end of the two-year follow-up period, however, the differences between the two groups are no longer statistically significant.
- There is no evidence that the programs impacted persistence. Over the course of the two-year follow-up period, students in the program group enrolled in an average of 3.3 semesters, and students in the control group enrolled in an average of 3.4 semesters; the difference in their outcomes is not statistically significant.
Christine Timmerman, director of outreach and retention at Lone Star College-Cyfair, said she was unsurprised by the findings. The summer program is just one tool colleges can use, and more interventions likely are needed for many students who are unprepared for college, might have language shortcomings and come from impoverished backgrounds.
Getting a Jump Start
“We are giving students a jump start,” she said. “They get individual attention. They have access to a mentor. They’re getting a little bit of extra support.”
“We have them for three hours. Some people expect miracles. But the students need ongoing support.”
Timmerman’s college has had a summer bridge program since 2005. Currently, four college recruiters work with 11 area high schools to identify and recruit students who fall short on standardized tests, are in need of remediation and could benefit from the summer bridge program.
But getting students into the summer course is not easy, Timmerman said. Some students have jobs and parents eager to have them contribute to the family budget. The summer course nearly piggybacks on high school graduation, and some students want a break. A relatively new policy of requiring all incoming students to attend an orientation session has helped, she said, as has the dedication of faculty members.
“The instructors are hand-selected,” she said. “They are the ones who are energized by 18-year-olds. We want faculty who really want to work with brand-new students.”
According to Concepcion C. Hickey, executive director of TAMIU’s University College, the school first offered a intensive five-week accelerated mathematics program that targeted area high school seniors who had fallen short of state standards on standardized tests in 2009.
An aggressive recruitment plan resulted in the enrollment of 126 eligible students. Program goals included the delivery of a diverse curriculum which included individualized pre- and post-assessment, academically challenging curriculum, tutoring, mentoring and academic advising.
Students followed a highly structured program that required them to participate in three hours of interactive classroom instruction and two hours of lab during which time they worked on their homework assignments.
“What we found out is that students who did their homework succeeded,” Hickey said. “Those that didn’t didn’t.”
The five-week program ran Monday through Thursday for five hours each day, for a total of 20 hours of classroom and lab contact time weekly. The five-week design afforded students enough time to make significant progress in their learning, Hickey said. Daily lunch was provided as economic support and offered students time to socialize and take a break from their study. Classroom instruction consisted of a 20-minute lecture followed by interactive group work monitored by the faculty and three to four tutors assigned to the classroom.
“The tutors were very important,” she said. “It’s so easy for the students to get stuck. The developmental students have so many issues. The tutors are told to step in. Their opinion counts for something.”
The results were promising, Hickey said. Of the 108 students that completed the program, 76.8 percent (83 students) advanced a math level. Of this total, 11.1 percent (12 students) advanced three levels, 24 percent (26 students) advanced 2 levels, 41.7 percent (45 students) advanced one level; 18.5 percent (20 students) did not advance a level, but
14 improved their score.
“Overall, 48 students, or 44 percent, qualified for college algebra out of a group that was extremely weak since most placed at the basic math or beginning algebra level,” Hickey said. “We exceeded our expectations.”
The study concludes that summer developmental bridge programs are but one tool educators must use to help underprepared students succeed over the longer term.
“What is clear from this study and other developmental education research is that simple, short-term interventions yielding strong, long-term effects are difficult to find,” the study said. “We offer two suggestions for action in advancing the work of supporting underprepared students: (1) introducing new partnerships between high schools and colleges that reduce the need for remediation in college and (2) providing more support and transitional experiences to help students reach and sustain attainment goals. Because educational attainment is the result of a long process influenced by many factors, providing supports to students that span their years in high school and college may help them to develop the skills and knowledge required for postsecondary success.”
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