Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Summer Shift

Summer teaching is one of the best-kept secrets at community colleges.  Many faculty swear that their summer classes are the best classes they teach all year.  Every class is different, of course, but for the most part the reasons given are the same.

One is acceleration, and the other is ‘visiting’ students.

Summer terms are usually much shorter than the standard 15 week semester.  Seven weeks is pretty standard, though I’ve seen variations involving four or five.  Students typically take fewer classes at a time, and focus more intensely on the few they’re taking.  From an instructional perspective, that offers a rare luxury.  You can build rapport quickly when you see students four or five days a week, and their attention isn’t as divided as it can be when they’re taking five classes at a time.

“Visiting” students are students who are seeking degrees elsewhere (“matriculated”), but are taking classes at the community college over the summer.  Often they live locally but go away during the regular semesters; when they come home for the summer, they pick up some classes at the community college.  It offers a way to combine the low cost and small classes that community colleges offer with the prestige of the flagship degree.

Visiting students aren’t unique to the summer, but that’s when they’re most common.  It’s not unusual for clear majorities of particular classes to be matriculated elsewhere.  Lab sciences and various gen eds are the most popular choices; the former because of class size and cost, and the latter for ease of transfer.  Even if you’re enrolled full-time at Prestige U, you can typically transfer in a significant number of credits from your local community college and pocket the difference in cost.  I can see the argument against doing that in your major, if you’re trying to build relationships with the faculty there, but if you’re a history major trying to knock off a math requirement, that strategy makes a pile of sense.

Financial aid isn’t as straightforward in the summer as in the rest of the year, so the student body tends to skew more affluent.  That’s a missed opportunity, given the reality of “summer melt” and the importance of continuity for students who are on the margins.  A more robust 12-month schedule could make graduating in two years or less much easier, even for students with developmental coursework.  I’d love to see financial aid work more cleanly with a 12-month calendar.

Summer offerings tend to vary by location, too.  Brookdale is on the Jersey Shore, where summer tourism is a major industry.  That means that plenty of students try to work as many hours for pay as they can during the summer to help offset the cost of the rest of the year.  That can tend to depress summer enrollments, especially in high season.  In areas with less distinctly seasonal economies, that’s less true.

I like to think of summer as a series of object lessons for community colleges.  What could happen if we made the transfer mission more conspicuous?  What could happen to completion rates if we weren’t wedded to the fifteen-week semester?  (Hint: they go up dramatically.)  What could happen if we had more economic diversity among our students?  

The political dialogue about transfer, to the extent that it exists, doesn’t include the “visiting” student taking a few classes over the summer, but it should.  It’s an easy, low-cost, sensible way to improve on-time completion rates at low cost, and it doesn’t require any dramatic changes to what we’re doing now.  Some students have figured that out, but more could, and four-year schools could -- if they were of a mind to -- include summer cc offerings as ways to lower costs (and therefore discount rates) and improve degree completion.  We’re happy to take their calls.  Hint, hint.

In the meantime, though, we’ll keep working with the students who are enterprising enough to find us, and hoping for the financial aid system to catch up with reality.  Summer courses are wins for everyone, even if we almost never talk about them.