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Q&A: NCPR Discusses Summer Bridge Programs with Heather Wathington, David Gardner, and Conchita Hickey

To mark NCPR’s release of an interim report on its random assignment study of developmental summer bridge programs in Texas, CCRC Communications Specialist Georgia West Stacey gathered some of the stakeholders to discuss the findings so far and learn more about how the summer bridge programs work.

Participating were David Gardner, Deputy Commissioner for Academic Planning and Policy and Chief Academic Officer of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board; Conchita Hickey, Executive Director of the University College at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU); and NCPR researcher Heather D. Wathington, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study.

The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

David gardner
Conchita hickey
Heather wathington
David Gardner
Conchita Hickey
Heather D. Wathington


Georgia: Heather, why did NCPR choose to study summer bridge programs?

Heather: NCPR was formed as a center to rigorously evaluate promising programs for students who are underprepared or lack the basic skills to advance to a college degree. 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. There has been very little research on summer bridge programs, even though they are a standard practice at a lot of colleges and universities.

Georgia: David, there are quite a few of these programs in Texas. What are the state’s goals for the summer bridge programs?

David: The bridge programs are one of the approaches that we anticipate will help accelerate success for students who may not be as prepared for college. What we really want to see is that the moment the students start college in the fall, they’re ready to go—that they may not need developmental education and instead be able to enroll directly into college-level programs and have a greater level of success in these courses.

Georgia: So you have high hopes. Heather, what are the study’s actual findings?

Heather: Our findings are very preliminary, but they suggest that students in the summer bridge program did have advantages going into their first semester. 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.

David: In looking at these results, I’m wondering if we might want to recommend these programs to the legislature as something we should have in place at all our institutions in the summer, and how we might fund them on an ongoing basis rather than through grants.

I’d also like to sit down with people who ran these programs and get their reactions and recommendations about what they felt worked well.

Georgia: Conchita, you managed the program at TAMIU. What are some of the recommendations you would make?

Conchita:  What I would most like to point out is that it was very helpful to have a funding source that required us to try different things. The change from the traditional model (of placing students in separate classes according to their placement scores) was a big turning point for us. We let everyone into one level of math, and I didn’t know what to expect. I remember when we saw our first cohort, I thought: “Oh my goodness! How is this going to work?”

But to our surprise, the accelerated model made a big difference. Instead of just lecturing and doing problems on the board, we broke students into small groups with tutors, and we had a required, structured lab. A continuing observation from faculty over the years has been that the students who pass developmental math are the ones who do their homework. And so I think the lab that accompanies our program is key—the students are there and they don’t have an excuse not to do their homework.

Georgia: So the acceleration model and the labs were the essential elements?

Conchita: For us, it was about reconceptualizing the delivery of the program, with academic support that is very structured and very intrusive and very strategic. And now I don’t even want to offer beginning algebra during our regular school year. We have begun piloting intermediate algebra alongside college algebra so students take them together in learning communities.

David:  There was a quote in the study from a student (from a different college) talking about the level of instruction. The student complained that he was being asked to cover certain concepts even though he already understood them and was ready to move forward. That’s one of our concerns, and it is something that Conchita is addressing in the TAMIU program.

Conchita: I think the message that is very compelling for all of us who have been in traditional developmental education is to not limit where students can go. We found in the three years we have done the summer bridge program that we always have a significant percentage of students who skip one or two levels in just this one five-week program. Had these students not participated, they might have had to start in beginning algebra, and then they would have had to do intermediate algebra and only then get to college algebra. And all of those different levels cost money, and they cost time.

David: The importance of the study is that it shows that bridge programs can be implemented in different ways—they can be either course-based or non-course-based. And some colleges were more successful than others in breaking out of the mold and finding new ways of doing things.

One of our main goals is to get people the help where they need it and not make them fall in lockstep with folks who need much more work than they do. From what I’ve seen of the evaluation, this was handled quite differently from institution to institution. I think we need to address that directly and figure out how to do it better at all the institutions.

Georgia: Heather, you spent time at many of the programs. Were there features that impressed you as working particularly well?

Heather:  The “college knowledge” that the colleges provided was really successful at orienting students to the college experience. We often heard students saying: “Wow! This isn’t high school anymore.” The college staff was very thorough in making clear to students the differences between high school and college. Overall, the staff that ran the programs was very attentive to student needs and concerned about student success. They worked hard to put together effective programs. So we felt the faculty and staff really were the strength of these programs.

Georgia: David, what are some of the things you’ll be thinking about as you move forward?

David: One of my questions is, how do we get more students into this type of program, if we’re able to fund it in some way? The process of recruiting students to enroll in these programs was a bit challenging at some of the schools. I also think there are a lot of questions to answer about the different approaches used at each campus.

But it looks promising. We haven’t had the internal discussions as of yet, but my review of the evaluation suggests to me that we need to think of this perhaps as one of our key strategies going forward in developmental education in Texas.