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Summer bridge programs have modest benefits

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​A new study of developmental education “summer bridge” programs in Texas—designed to prepare high school students to move more rapidly into college-level classes—shows that students who attend the programs are more likely to pass college-level math and writing in their first year and a half of college than those who do not attend.

However, the study also found that these effects fade after two years, and that the program has no effect on student persistence or credit accumulation—two important indicators of student success.

The report from the National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR)—in collaboration with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board—tracked 1,300 mostly Hispanic students over two years who participated in summer bridge programs at two four-year and six community colleges in Texas. The intensive summer programs ranged in length from four to five weeks and provide up to six hours a day of instruction in math, reading and/or writing, as well as academic tutoring and college advising.

The study shows that students in the program—who tested below college-level at the start of the summer—were 7 percentage points more likely to pass college-level math and 5 percentage points more likely to pass college-level writing in the first year and half after participating. By spring, 2011—the fifth semester after attending the program—students were still slightly more likely to have passed these classes, but the difference was no longer statistically significant.

Worth the cost?

The research also suggests that accelerating students’ completion of introductory college-level courses in math or English may not lead to the accumulation of more college credits overall.

“If the ultimate goal is college credential attainment, and credit accumulation indicates progress toward attaining a credential, improving academic preparedness through developmental summer bridge programs or other similar programs may not adequately promote attainment of this goal,” the report said. “Policymakers and practitioners concerned with college completion may want to consider approaches that go further in assisting students in ongoing credit accumulation and credential attainment.”

Researchers also examined the cost of the summer bridge programs. For the programs to break even, students in the programs would need to have earned an average of almost four additional college credits to justify the cost of the program.

NCPR said total costs to run the program during summer 2009 ranged from $62,633 to $296,033, depending on services provided. Across the eight sites, per-student costs ranged from $835 to $2,349. The average cost per student across all eight sites was $1,319.

Given that there was no impact on credit accumulation, “college practitioners and policymakers may reasonably view the programs as expensive,” according to the report.

Looking for solutions

Colleges across the country are looking for ways to help students move more quickly out of developmental education and into college-level classes. Nationally, six out of 10 students entering community college need at least one remedial class, and only 28 percent of these students go on to complete a college degree or credential.

Developmental summer bridge programs have become an increasingly popular way to address the issue. One recent survey found that as many as 13 percent of four-year colleges offer bridge programs.

The NCPR study is the first to use a random assignment design to provide experimental evidence that these programs contribute to greater success early in students’ college careers, a period when they are most likely to drop out. As the study’s authors note, however, the findings suggest that four- to five-week summer bridge programs are not sufficient to improve long-term student outcomes and may need to be layered with additional interventions to sustain benefits for students.

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