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hopeful for a while that changes in the Pell programs would level the playing field a bit, but those changes have been repealed.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?