October 18, 2011 — A study of summer bridge programs, which are designed to help low-performing students transition successfully to college, has found that they are working as intended. Over a three-year period, students who attended the programs in Texas high schools were more likely to pass college-level courses in math and writing than those who did not attend, researchers found.
University of Virginia assistant professor of education Heather Wathington is the lead author of the study, conducted by the National Center for Postsecondary Research, which is operated in collaboration with U.Va.'s Curry School of Education; the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University; MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy organization; and Harvard University professor Bridget Terry Long.
"Our findings are very preliminary, but they suggest that students in the summer bridge programs did have advantages going into their first semester," Wathington said. "We learned that program students were not more likely to enroll in college, but they were more likely to attempt and pass college-level math and college-level writing."
She noted that summer bridge programs "have become an increasingly popular way for colleges and universities to address students' academic underpreparedness, but until now no studies existed on the effectiveness of these programs."
The National Center for Postsecondary Research, which is directed by Thomas Bailey, the George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, measures the effectiveness of programs designed to help students make the transition to college and master the basic skills needed to advance to a degree, Wathington explained. Its current research projects are on dual enrollment, financial aid and post-secondary remediation.
"We have looked at learning communities and dual enrollment, but we were also interested in developmental education programs that are trying to accelerate students' learning before they even come to college," she said.
The three-year study, done in collaboration with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, is tracking more than 1,300 mostly Hispanic students who participated in developmental summer bridge programs in 2009 at one four-year college and seven community colleges in Texas. The intensive summer programs range in length from four to five weeks and provide three to six hours a day of instruction in math, reading and/or writing, academic tutoring and advising, and guidance on the sometimes bewildering procedures associated with attending college, such as applying for financial aid, developing an academic plan and transferring to a four-year college.
Results from the 2009-10 school year reveal that 32 percent of summer bridge students passed college-level writing during their first semester of college, compared with 27 percent of a control group of similar students who entered the study lacking basic needs; 9 percent of program participants passed college-level math, as opposed to 4 percent in the control group.
The improvements, though modest, provide hopeful news to the state of Texas, which in 2000 announced an ambitious plan to increase the number of students earning post-secondary credentials from 116,249 in 2000 to 210,000 by 2015, an increase of more than 70 percent. Improving success rates for underprepared students is critical if the state wants to meet its goals. Nationally, six out of 10 students entering community college need at least one remedial class and only 25 percent of these students ever go on to earn a college degree or credential.
Colleges in Texas and across the country have been seeking ways to help students move more quickly out of remediation and into college-level classes. Developmental summer bridge programs have become an increasingly popular way to address the problem, and the study provides evidence-based data on which to base a program's effectiveness.
"The Curry School is delighted to be a partner in this important work on programs that foster success in higher education for students who might otherwise struggle and maybe even drop out of college," Curry Dean Robert Pianta said. "College degrees are an essential component of success in the current and future workforce, and understanding whether and how these program work is important."
Wathington, he added, "has been a leader in efforts not only to develop these support programs, but also to evaluate their impacts using solid science. Her involvement with this study has been critical to its success."
The National Center for Postsecondary Research study uses a random assignment design to provide the first rigorous evidence that these programs can contribute to improved student outcomes. Student outcomes for the 2010-11 school year will be presented in the study's final report, to be released next summer.
For a copy of the report, visit here.