Summer Bridge Programs: Creating Opportunities for Low-Income Youth

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These are among the worst of times for low-income youth, particularly males and youth of color. In the midst of a deep national recession, many young people face both a tough labor market and serious barriers to success in postsecondary education. According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Boston’s Northeastern University, the employment rates for males 16 to 19 years old, 20 to 24 and 25 to 29 are at their lowest levels in six decades.

Among low-income youth who graduate from high school and aspire to go to college, close to half are not ready to take college-level courses, due to inadequate preparation in high school. These students often get mired in taking (and paying for) semester after semester of noncredit developmental (remedial) courses in reading, English and, particularly, math, and their chances of earning a credential in less than six years are less than 20 percent. Low-income males and students of color are even less likely to earn a credential than females and white students.

Is there anything that could address both the employment and educational challenges today’s low-income youth face?

One promising idea is “summer bridge” programs at community colleges for low-income high school juniors who are college-bound but not yet college-ready. Students who do not score high enough on a college placement exam would have the opportunity to take college prep courses in the areas in which they need help, most likely in reading, writing and math, during the summer between their junior and senior years. The college prep courses could be combined with summer jobs – both provided right on community college campuses – giving students a chance to earn and learn.

The time is right to try summer bridge programs that combine work with education. In his $12 billion American Graduation Initiative, President Barack Obama has set a lofty goal of creating an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020. His focus on community colleges recognizes their crucial role as the gateway to higher education for low-income students and their versatility in preparing students both for jobs through certificate programs and for transfer to four-year universities through associate degrees.

Interventions, such as summer bridge programs, that prepare students to take college-level courses right away would help make the most of this new federal investment. In addition, the guaranteed jobs in the bridge programs can be paid for by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which will continue to provide stimulus funding for summer jobs for youth in 2010.

Beyond the education and work experience benefits, a summer bridge program for rising high school seniors would allow them to experience college life, get acclimated to the facilities and resources on campus, learn more about admission requirements, and even get help applying for financial aid. During their senior year, students who fulfilled their developmental courses could enroll in dual-credit programs or even Advanced Placement courses to get a head start in earning college credits. Students who still have developmental needs could continue to bolster their skills during their senior year and have an opportunity to enroll in a second summer bridge program before entering college.

Summer bridge programs have been proliferating around the country in recent years – for example, the Jumpstart/Achievers program operated by the College Success Foundation and several state-sponsored programs in Texas (one of which is being evaluated through the National Center for Postsecondary Research).

But most of the existing programs operate in the summer right after graduation from high school, which may be too late for many students. A summer bridge program between the junior and senior years would give more students the chance to become college-ready.

Just think: Students who have fulfilled their developmental education requirements in a summer bridge program would be able to enroll in college-level courses right off the bat, avoiding the stigma of remedial classes; earn their credentials much more quickly; and see that their precious financial aid dollars are not squandered on noncredit courses. And the summer jobs will not only provide them with extra cash, but the work experience will give them an entrée to the labor market once they’ve finished their schooling.

Taking this idea to scale and evaluating its effectiveness will take political will and leadership; collaboration among school districts, community colleges and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) system (which controls the summer jobs program funding); and leveraged funding. But the effort will be worth it if we can reduce the number of students who need to take remedial courses when they go to college. Doing so will go a long way toward meeting the president’s challenge and, more importantly, will put more young people on the path for further education, fulfilling careers and economic security.

Robert Ivry is senior vice president for MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm based in New York City and Oakland, Calif.