College & Workforce Readiness

Colleges Offer Incoming Freshmen a Summer ‘Bridge’

By Caralee J. Adams — May 08, 2012 7 min read
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On a placement test in his senior year of high school, Ruben Ortiz found out he was not ready for college-level math. His counselor suggested a summer “bridge” program at El Paso Community College to get up to speed.

The five-week program helped Mr. Ortiz move up a level in math and avoid a remedial course in the fall. It also sold him on the college. Two years later, the 21-year-old, first-generation college student is about to complete his associate degree in computer engineering and transfer to the University of Texas at El Paso.

“It helped with the transition from high school to college—getting to know the college, the admissions process, financial aid,” said Mr. Ortiz, who later became a mentor in the program, offering the same kind of advice that he received as an incoming student. Without the summer bridge program, he said, he might have felt more lost as a freshman.

Despite the success Mr. Ortiz and others have had with such programs, as well as research underscoring that success, money to pay for them is tight. Some institutions, such as El Paso Community College, have had to scrap or scale them back, while others are struggling to find funds to scale them up. Yet, as more students deemed academically at risk are encouraged to pursue higher education, experts say the demand for transition programs will only grow.

“Summer bridge programs can provide an important head start on college,” said Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research associate at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Community College Research Center in New York. “They can increase the chances that students will enter college without needing remediation, and they can help students to gain comfort with the college environment and with themselves as college students.”

Such programs, which tend to run four to five weeks, offer intensive academic instruction. At-risk students are often recruited, and colleges generally pick up the tab as an enticement.

Students can come for the day or, at some institutions, live in the dorms. In developmental programs, classes focus on mathematics or English. Other campuses allow students to take a broader range of courses. Almost all find providing “college knowledge” through peer mentors is a valuable way to help students feel more confident about the transition to campus.

Promising Findings

Recent research has found that the programs are a promising way to prepare students academically and socially for college. The National Center for Postsecondary Research, housed at Columbia, evaluated eight summer bridge programs in Texas that targeted students in need of remedial instruction in math, reading, or writing. Many of them also covered college-success topics, such as time management and note taking.

The study discovered students in the programs were more likely to pass college-level courses in math and writing the following fall. They were also more apt to enroll in a higher-level math, writing, or reading course than the control group.

The researchers also found the best predictors of success were faculty members interested in working with younger students, the availability of trained peer mentors, extra academic support, organization of students into cohorts to encourage one another, and a champion on campus.

Participating in the summer programs did not lead to higher enrollment or better long-term persistence, but Ms. Barnett said they are beneficial, and schools should build on them with supports in the freshman year and beyond.

There is an increased need for remediation for the broader swath of students enrolling in college, including those who are the first generation of their families to attend, said David Hawkins, the director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, in Arlington, Va.

“This creates a significant demand for pathways that feed into the college pipeline that allow students the time and knowledge to catch up to others who were born into families who had gone to college and were exposed to that culture,” he said.

A new NACAC survey found that 57 percent of colleges have some type of provisional-admission program, and of those, 23 percent had a summer bridge program. Other NACAC research of camp colleges (a form of summer bridge) also reported better persistence and outcomes among participants.

“It seems like we are at a breaking point on cost and remediation,” Mr. Hawkins said. “It gives reason for colleges to want to open their doors earlier.”

Recruitment Issues

Nationwide, about 40 percent of all traditional-age college students at two- and four-year colleges take a remedial course, and about 60 percent of incoming community college students are deemed not ready in at least one core subject—math, reading, or writing.

Texas, which has had an initiative since 2000 to promote postsecondary training for all high school graduates, encourages students who test below college level to apply for a developmental summer bridge program. Because there are more students than slots available, 60 percent, chosen by lottery, are offered a chance to go into the program.

“Students aren’t prepared for college. They think they are, but they aren’t,” said Irma Camacho, the director of student services at El Paso Community College. The bridge program helps students enter with a better set of skills and understanding of college, said Ms. Camacho. She hopes to revive the program next year. It served 120 students annually at a cost of $720 each, covered by the college.

Many summer bridge students at Lone Star Community College, which has campuses in the Houston area, have missed something along the line in math or another subject, said Donna Jo Anderson, an adviser with Lone Star’s College Connection program at the CyFair campus who works with local high school seniors. Students are often eager to catch up, and the free books and tuition, along with the promise of a $100 bonus if they pass, helps recruitment, she said.

At Texas A&M International University, the biggest challenge for incoming students is the lack of intrinsic motivation, according to Concepcion Hickey, the executive director of TAMIU’s University College. Often, they haven’t found learning exciting and don’t have the discipline to self-study, she said. It can be a struggle to find students willing to commit to the university’s summer bridge program.

“The biggest competitor is the fact that students want to work or feel they have to work,” she said.

TAMIU’s summer bridge program is all about math, since twice as many incoming students need remediation in math than in writing and reading, Ms. Hickey said. For half the day, groups of 25 students are introduced to a math topic, break into small groups to work, and then present their answers to the class. The rest of the day is a structured lab, with tutors circulating. Peer mentors also answer questions about college life in weekly sessions.

Too often, freshmen think they don’t need to study beyond the 12 hours each week they might spend in class, said Ms. Hickey.

“They don’t read their assignments. Some don’t take notes; they think they will remember. … It’s sort of like a hope and a prayer,” she said.

A grant underwrites the program, which costs about $80,000 a year to serve 100 students, according to Ms. Hickey. Students in the program have consistently registered significant gains in math scores, often entering in the fall ready for college-level math. Of the 108 students who completed the program in 2009, 77 percent advanced at least one level.

The Academic Immersion Program at Fairfield University, in Fairfield, Conn., is a four-week residential program that has served as many as 50 first-generation, low-income students of color a year since it began six years ago. Students pay just $50 and book costs to enroll in two courses and can receive credit to start their first year with a reduced load, said William Johnson, the associate dean of students and director of the student-diversity program.

Evenings at Fairfield are spent in structured study halls. “We are trying to instill in students the discipline and work habits they will need to be successful college students,” Mr. Johnson said.

Participants are more likely to graduate, be engaged, and try new things, such as study abroad, he said. “They know they have people who are behind them.”

With the university picking up most of the cost, the program cannot sustain paying for more than 26 students.

Ways to Expand

At Lone Star, 60 students of an incoming class of 3,000 take part in the summer bridge program. “It’s just a drop in the bucket,” said Christine Timmerman, its director of outreach and retention. “We know this works, … but it’s a Catch-22. Where is the money to fund it?”

Campuses are also using other ways of reaching out to smooth the transition.

Lone Star has a grant to provide four-hour “boot camps” in high schools to provide information on the college transition. It will also begin to make student orientation mandatory so new students get more guidance on choosing classes.

“It’s difficult with summer bridge programs because there is a cost associated with them. But the mitigating factor is that you are building enrollment, and that may be more important in the long run,” said Mr. Hawkins of NACAC.

It can be demoralizing for students eager to go to college to find out they are not ready for college-level work, said Lone Star’s Ms. Anderson. But summer bridge programs can build their confidence, she added.

“It starts out their college careers on the right foot.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as Colleges Offer Incoming Freshmen a Summer ‘Bridge’


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