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UNC Summer Bridge Program Not Meeting Expectations

    Publisher's note: The author of this post is Jesse Saffron, who is a writer and editor for the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.

Students in academic prep program not performing much better than those not getting extra help

    RALEIGH     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: N.C. Central University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke, Elizabeth City State University, and N.C. A&T State University.

    The system's General Administration has issued a report claiming 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.

    The Summer Bridge Program urges students whose high school grade point averages and SAT scores place them in the bottom 10 percent of the first-year freshman class - called a "high risk student population" - to enter the 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 course, 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 supervision.

    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, between 85 and 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 N.C. Central's cohort was 3.53.

    Unfortunately, those N.C. Central students' GPAs dipped dramatically during the fall and spring semesters, 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 was 2.49 in the 2013-14 academic year. All universities participating in the program had similar results: Students receive much higher grades in their summer work (usually ranging between "C+" to "A") than they do in subsequent semesters (ranging from "D+" to "C+").

    Because the high summer GPAs boost the Summer Bridge students' overall GPAs, however, the university system boasts that participants' cumulative GPAs are higher after the first year than those of traditional students.

    The legislative report was designed to present the Summer Bridge program in the best possible light. General Administration, however, omitted and glossed over some important facts. For instance, Summer Bridge graduation rates are abysmal.

    At N.C. 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. 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 drives roughly 300 low-performing students each year 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.

    The General Assembly has considered another, less costly way to increase the academic performance of students who lack adequate preparation for a four-year college: The Guaranteed Admission Program, or NC GAP, discussed in the House of Representatives during the 2013 legislative session, addressed many of the same goals.

    NC GAP would have provided an incentive to students with borderline academic records to attend a community college and earn an associate degree before going to one of the system's 16 public universities. The goal of the plan - which was 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 taxpayers the recurring funds directed to Summer Bridge and could reduce the state's overall spending per student. The state currently spends roughly $13,500 per full-time university student on average, but only $4,200 per full-time community college student.

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