Many colleges have invested in bridge programs to help promising “borderline” students adjust to college-level work. The intention is admirable: to ensure the academic success of students who, for instance, have either an SAT score or a GPA high enough for regular admission, but not both.
However, many of these programs fail to actually support student success, because they focus on non-credit-bearing courses or because they undermine student confidence by singling them out as needing special help.
Georgia State, a leader in supporting under-represented student populations, has been creating effective bridge programs by adhering to a handful of principles: focusing on core classes, encouraging an early start on Pell funding, and taking special care with communications to frame its early start programs as positive opportunities.
Focus on core classes
Most conditionally admitted students start later than the rest of the class and have to take remedial classes; it can take them more than a year to even get started on credit-bearing coursework.
Georgia State instead invites academically at-risk students to skip remediation entirely and start college-level coursework the summer before their official freshman fall semester. Students in the Summer Success Academy program enroll as a unified cohort in classes already offered in the summer term, alongside upperclassman who serve as models of college success. As a cohort, students also attend financial counseling, advising, tutoring, and supplemental instruction to ensure they are prepared to succeed in college-level classes.
These credit-bearing courses advance borderline students on their path toward degree completion. And, because Georgia State’s summer start students take courses that are part of the general education requirements for all students, they won’t lose credit for these courses if they change their majors later in their college careers.
Encourage an early start on Pell funding
Early start programs like Success Academy can help students get the most out of their Pell grants by retroactively enrolling them in the prior academic year. This Pell technicality permits grant-eligible students who file two FAFSA forms to use federal aid to finance their summer start term.
Pell funding requires part-time students to take at least six credit hours, so Georgia State enrolls Summer Academy students in seven credits (two core requirements and a one-credit first-year seminar). Because early credit momentum promotes on-time graduation, these students are less likely to need that Pell funding later.
Proactively promote attendees’ confidence
Administrators at Georgia State know that many of their borderline students come from low-income backgrounds or are the first in their family to go to college. To help build these students’ confidence, Georgia State ensured that summer program communications did not echo stigmatizing cultural discourse and avoided references to being “at-risk” or needing special assistance to accommodate for whatever was lacking in their traditional applications.
Rather than “required summer school” for “lagging” students, Georgia State framed its program as a special opportunity to step gently in to the college experience during a quiet summer session with unique access to faculty, staff, and other students, both new and returning.
We encourage enrollment managers to speak to borderline students in a voice more typically reserved for honors students: Our research suggests a good bridge program can enable them to be one and the same.