A UNC program designed to help academically weak students has not delivered

Since the 2007-08 academic year, the state of North Carolina has allotted more than $7 million to the Academic Summer Bridge Program, which is intended to prepare academically weak students for the rigors of college. Five schools within the University of North Carolina system participate: NC Central, Fayetteville State, UNC-Pembroke, Elizabeth City State, and NC A&T.

The system’s General Administration has issued a report that claims the bridge programs are “successfully transitioning significant numbers of underrepresented, underserved students into the universities….” But a close look at the data reveals that they have been far from successful at improving academic performance and graduation rates among those students. Policymakers would be well-advised to consider alternative options for transitioning underprepared students to four-year universities.

First, let’s look at the program’s particulars.

Students whose high school GPAs and SAT scores place them in the bottom 10 percent of the first-year freshman class—called a “high risk student population”—are encouraged to enter the Summer Bridge program. Like the name “Summer Bridge,” the titles of each university’s program are designed to minimize the program’s remedial nature. At Fayetteville State, for example, it’s called “Creating Higher Expectations for Educational Readiness,” or CHEER.

Program participants must complete a for-credit, college-level English and math course over the course of a four- or five-week period the summer before their first fall semester and earn a “C” or better in both classes. Students live on campus and attend classes each weekday. Throughout the summer coursework, they receive mandatory academic counseling, guidance, and mentorship.

Those support services remain available throughout the students’ time at the university. State funds directed toward the programs pay for the summer coursework and student housing, as well as the intensive academic oversight.

The General Administration’s legislative report points to high completion rates in the summer coursework as a sign that the students have “demonstrated the academic skills for success in college.”

It’s true that such rates are high. Each summer, 85-95 percent of students complete the program, meaning they earned a “C” or higher in both courses and then enrolled in fall semester classes. And some students at some of the universities appear to be performing relatively well in their summer courses. In 2013, for example, the average summer GPA of NC Central’s cohort was 3.53.

Unfortunately, those NC Central students’ GPAs dipped dramatically in the fall and spring, when their average GPAs were 2.39 and 2.44, respectively. Those GPAs were slightly lower than the average first-year GPA of traditional NCCU freshmen, which for 2013-14 was 2.49. For all universities participating in the program, the results are similar: students have relatively high grades in their summer work (usually in the “C+” to “A” range), but perform significantly worse (“D+” to “C+“ range) in subsequent semesters.

Because the high summer GPAs boost the Summer Bridge students’ overall GPAs, however, the university system is able to boast that participants’ cumulative GPAs are higher after the first year than those of traditional students.

The first and obvious criticism is that abbreviated summer coursework, in which students are cosseted by faculty and academic support staff, may be fooling underprepared students into thinking they are “B” or even “A” students. That lack of rigor and real class experience does a disservice to the students who want to not just attend college, but perform well during a full-time, full-length semester and stay on track to graduate.

Evidence shows that many Summer Bridge students end up dropping courses or otherwise reducing their work load: approximately one-fourth to one-third of each cohort ends up taking classes on a part-time schedule in the fall and spring, which may further contribute to the somewhat higher average first-year GPAs of Summer Bridge students.

Second, it would be helpful to know how well Summer Bridge students are doing after their first year. As course intensity and difficulty (presumably) increases in later years, how are they adjusting? The General Administration did not list that information or provide GPA comparisons for years two, three, four, and beyond, even though that information is available, as cohorts are monitored over time.

The legislative report was designed to present the Summer Bridge program in the best possible light. Unfortunately, that required the General Administration to omit or gloss over some facts. An important category glossed over in the report is Summer Bridge graduation rates, which are abysmal.

For example, only 10 percent of NC A&T’s 2009 cohort graduated in four years, and just 22.7 percent in five years (six-year rates aren’t available yet). That compares to traditional (first-time, full-time) students’ four- and five-year graduation rates of 20 percent and 37.5 percent, respectively. At NC Central, only 15 percent of the 2008 cohort graduated in four years, and only 34 percent graduated in six years. That compares to traditional students’ four- and six-year graduation rates of 21 percent and 47 percent.

And Elizabeth City State, which on its website tells prospective Summer Bridge students that their “chances of succeeding” and graduating “will be significantly enhanced” by entering the program, had a 2009 cohort with four- and five-year graduation rates of 15 percent and 31.5 percent, respectively. Those rates are slightly lower than those of traditional students.

All Summer Bridge cohorts’ graduation rates, except for Fayetteville State’s 2008 cohort, are lower than traditional students’ rates.

In other words, the state is spending millions of dollars on a program that each year drives roughly 300 low-performing students into a four-year university, where they tend to earn poor grades, drop out, or otherwise fail to graduate within a reasonable period of time. That’s wasting taxpayer money and the time, effort, and resources of the students, faculty, and staff involved with the program.

The legislative report, which provides a rosy depiction of the program, has issues unrelated to its biased evaluation. Last year, the legislature directed both the UNC Board of Governors and the General Administration to provide a detailed summary of the Summer Bridge educational outcomes discussed above. The system’s administration, however, prepared the report and sent it to the legislature before submitting it to the Board of Governors for review and debate. (Some board members expressed frustration about that at their January meeting.)

Now, as the N.C. legislature considers the effectiveness of the Summer Bridge program, it might look back at a 2013 proposal from the state’s House of Representatives that would have addressed many of the same goals.

The Guaranteed Admission Program (NC GAP) would provide an incentive to students with borderline academic records to attend a community college and earn an associate’s degree before going to one of the system’s 16 public universities. The goal of the plan—which was ultimately not ratified by the legislature—is to increase graduation rates, enhance weaker students’ academic skills, and reduce costs to students and the state.

Such a program would save the state the recurring funds directed to Summer Bridge and could help to reduce the state’s overall spending per student. Right now, the state spends on average roughly $13,500 per full-time university student, but only $4,200 per full-time community college student.

The legislature and UNC system officials should reconsider NC GAP. Yes, the state’s taxpayers would be better off. But students—especially those from academically inferior K-12 environments—would be the big winners. Rather than go directly to a four-year college and be in over their heads, they could build their skills and study habits, obtain a two-year degree, and then transition to a four-year university. By that time, they will have proved that they have the skills, motivation, and desire to succeed.