Friday, July 08, 2011


Class and Summer Classes

The kids who most need summer classes are the least likely to get them.

The folks who study student success in the K-12 system routinely report that much of the learning gap between lower-income and higher-income students is a function of summers. The upper-income students have culturally enriched home environments and activities, so the academic backsliding over the summers is minimal. The lower-income kids, on average, get much less enrichment at home, so they backslide over the summers.

I’ve never seen a reason to suspect that the dynamic stops at twelfth grade.

My community college, like many, offers summer classes. They’re fairly popular among the faculty, who can pick up some extra money by teaching them. Part of the reason for the popularity, though, is that the summer students are different. Outside of a few designated “summer bridge” programs, the summer students are generally more affluent, more prepared, and easier to teach. Many of them register as “visiting” students, since they’re actually full-time someplace else and just home for the summer. The use the cc to pick up a few extra credits on the cheap.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. But it’s hard not to notice that the students who most need the continuity are the least likely to get it. Even the “summer bridge” programs typically only target students between high school and college; once they’ve completed their first year of college, the students are pretty much on their own for the summers.

I was hopeful for a while that changes in the Pell programs would level the playing field a bit, but those changes have been repealed. For a couple of years, it became possible to use Pell money for summer classes, but that rule has changed. Now, the folks who are likelier to use “summer” as a verb -- “where do you summer?” -- will once again have more access to summer classes. The rest will interrupt their lives again and go on the unique hell that is the summer job circuit.

Class reproduces itself in ways both subtle and obvious. Time to completion is a strong predictor of the likelihood of success -- simply put, the longer it takes, the fewer will make it. (I’ve seen this in micro ways at my own college. For example, our course completion rate for last January’s intersession was over 90 percent. They didn’t have time to drop out.) Students who use summers to speed up the process finish sooner. Students who don’t have the option to do that pay a price in time, and time wears them down.

The for-profits figured this out some time ago, and mostly went to twelve-month academic calendars. We haven’t, and’ probably won’t, but there’s still a perfectly reasonable social justice argument for a robust slate of summer offerings. But that argument is harder to make when the summer offerings are largely populated by the students who would probably succeed anyway.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a campus with a fiscally sustainable way to level the playing field in the summer?

Yes, most of our programmes are co-op programmes which operate year-round and alternate work and academic terms. Summer is a full term; it has slightly fewer students than the other terms, since we've graduated a bunch of people after Winter term and haven't let in the new Fall students yet.

Teaching 3 terms in a row gets pretty tiring, though, and there's no "smarter student" benefit here, since it's the same students as all year.
Priority registration dates for continuing students allow them to register first and for the classes they most need. A second priority tier for incoming freshmen from the feeder high schools doesn't eliminate the students getting a jump on college elsewhere, but helps out our new students. "Visiting" students register later.
Does the CC pay attention to when summer classes are offered, to fit around summer jobs? Offering evening classes to accommodate day jobs for instance (which is done during the year, but might be less likely in the summer).
I think the advisors the student's talk to on campus can help you. If they point out to students that taking two summer school classes each year for the first two years will get them out a whole semester earlier, you'll probably see more students who choose that route. Help students structure their schedules so that summer is light if they're worried about burn out. Or, have them take the one hard class they think will be a struggle during the summer when they can focus just on that content. Also, if you have bottleneck courses, offer them in the summer to help get more people through the system.

Faculty in my department would also have "come to Jesus" talks with struggling students where we pointed out that they could come back in the fall and retake their failed courses or they could take just one class over the summer and see how it went. If they couldn't succeed while taking just ONE class, they were more likely to change majors (which for most of them was the right path to take).
Wait, you can't use Pell grants for summer classes?
See what you can do about offering campus employment in the summer. A lot of our students at regional public U work on campus during the regular school year, but those jobs all seem to vanish in the summer. If they can't work on campus, they won't be on campus during the "off" sessions.

Talk with your alumni and foundation people about setting up need-based scholarships specifically for summer classes. Even a small scholarship might make the difference for a student who would really benefit from a summer course, but who otherwise couldn't afford it. And unfortunately, most scholarships are tied to the "regular" academic year.
On the issue of funding, there are really two groups of students. One is unemployed and using financial aid as a form of welfare to support themselves and feed their children. The other is working, and using the grant to pay for classes.

In the second case, I recommend that the student budget for the tuition for a single class in the summer, out of their own pocket, especially if they were planning to work more hours in the summer rather than go to school. This is a fantastic way to finish off a math requirement, particularly if they are repeating a class that financial aid might not cover anyway.
I'd love to see you describe how a twelve month calendar would work in a CC setting, partly because I have my own views on the subject.

It can't be done at our college because our calendar is restricted by laws that facilitate transfer. We would have to make any such change simultaneously at every college in the state, so our schedule is dictated by the football calendar at the biggest schools.

Ditto for our contract year, which makes it actually impossible to stagger full-time faculty across any two of three equal trimesters or any three of four equal quarters.
Nice and interesting one. I am impressed.
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