Reviving Summer Bridge: UCM Revisits a Promising Practice in Promoting Equity

As Missouri heat and humidity swells, the stress that often accompanies college life also begins to rise as Central Summer Academy students at the University of Central Missouri (UCM) head into midterm…just 14 days after class began. It’s the afternoon. Students are clustered around tables with tutors and peer mentors. By now, the routine is fully established:

Breakfast is followed by freshman seminar, then either a literacy or math course (determined by ACT placement), lunch, afternoon public speaking course, structured study hours, service learning, dinner, and concluding with evening study in the residence halls.

The goal of the Central Summer Academy, like most summer bridge programs, is to “equip incoming students with the skills and resources that are needed to be successful in college,” says Shaunte Montgomery, director of first year programs at UCM.

The daily schedule prepares students for what day-to-day life may be like once the semester begins. It also introduces them to the support services available to help them make the most of their college experience. The pace of classes and activities is difficult to manage at first and, after a few days, still challenging, but support services and staff are woven into the process from sun up to sundown and students acclimate to their new responsibilities by creating and abiding by norms in their residence halls.

The Central Summer Academy was born out of a desire to reduce the achievement gaps of students who are first-generation, limited income or underserved minorities. Too often these students were having a different experience at UCM than other students, resulting in many of them leaving campus during their first year.

“We wanted a researched-based approach to tackling our equity gap,” says Dr. Karen Goos, interim vice provost for enrollment management. “Evidence suggested summer bridge programs can ease the transition to college. It was important for UCM to consider powerful interventions that would both have a social and academic impact as we strive to reduce our achievement gaps at the university.”

While summer bridge programs are well-established at many colleges and universities, the increase in first-generation and limited-income students attending universities has quickly out-paced the capacity for many summer bridge experiences to serve them well. In some cases, programs are too short to be meaningful; in others, they are too costly for low-income students to attend. UCM sought to create a summer program designed to address these barriers.

“I was a first-generation college student and I didn’t know what to expect when I came to college” says Magaly Arjona, past Central Summer Academy participant and now a summer staff member.

The Central Summer Academy provides students the opportunity to earn seven credit hours before formal classes even begin. Participants live in the residence halls, participate in co-curricular activities such as service learning, and are exposed to cultural events that enrich the learning experience; all within one month. It’s a signature part of UCM’s intentional efforts to recruit and support underserved students.

The Central Summer Academy leverages resources on campus and off. Supported through Lumina Foundation and Kresge Foundation funds through UCM’s participation in the St. Louis Talent Hub as well as a federal Title III Strengthening Institutions grant, the Academy aligns campus resources, so students start their experience at UCM with “college knowledge” and familiarity with all UCM has to offer.

“My goal is to give students the best experience while they are here and for them to feel that UCM is a home away from home,” Arjona shared. “I can honestly say that I feel that I have accomplished that goal.”

In 2019, its second year, the Central Summer Academy served only a portion of eligible students, yet the interactions of a cross-section of the student body and takeaways from Academy experiences have the potential to transform institutional policy and practice. Summer staff and faculty, unencumbered by the work volume typical of fall and spring, have time for broader and deeper conversations with students. Trust forms and mentoring relationships begin to emerge. With earned credit and confidence, students now look to fall both with anticipation and realistic appraisal, leveraging the skills learned over the summer as they seek to earn their degrees. Central Summer Academy is giving students in need an extra edge in pursuit of their education while strengthening UCM’s ability to help all student succeed.

–Chris Beggs, executive director, Academic Support Services, University of Central Missouri