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Student Success

Summer School Promotes Student Success

UNC System campuses were once tranquil places in June and July. Emptied of students, the hallways remained quiet except for the rattle of paint crews touching up the walls and maintenance personnel tinkering about, getting the facilities ready for the August rush. Tangles of thick, orange extension cords spilled out of doorways and down stairs, supplying current to power tools and floor polishers with little risk of tripping up shuffling feet.   

That tranquility is getting harder to find these days. Universities across the System are encouraging more students to enroll throughout the year. Why is the tradition of the summer break changing? Because statistics show that summer school significantly improves the odds of student success.

Across the UNC System, institutions are offering more summer courses. They are helping students figure out how to pay the cost of enrolling in the summer. And the institutions are doing more to promote summers, not as the season to break from classes and homework, but as an opportunity to continue studying in pursuit of sunnier futures. 

While taking Professor Dale Hutchinson’s summer anthropology course, UNC-Chapel Hill students unlock the mystery that is written in bone. Photo credit: Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill

Doing the Math: Summer Credits Add Up to Success

Data and research show that a student who takes courses in the summer is more likely to stay enrolled and to graduate in four years.

Students who earn at least 30 credits per year are more likely to complete their degrees on time. In fact, earning 60 or more credits by the start of one’s junior year nearly doubles the odds of graduating in four years.

Unfortunately, life has a tendency of getting in the way. Work obligations, financial need, and family commitments keep more than 40 percent of UNC System students from achieving this critical benchmark.

Summer school offers students flexibility as they work toward this goal. If a student needs to work during the fall and the spring in order to afford living expenses, they may need to take fewer credits in a given semester to ensure they’ve got enough time to juggle work and school. By enabling students to earn credits across more time—12 months instead of 9—summer provides extra opportunities to complete the 30 credits needed to stay on track to graduate. Likewise, students who want to get ahead and graduate early can use summer sessions to accelerate their path to a degree.

Among the UNC System’s 2012 cohort, only 33 percent of students who graduated in four years had fewer than three credits of summer coursework.

Students who took summer school classes were nearly twice as likely to graduate in four and five years. That pattern holds for transfer students, Pell recipients, and students attending a Historically Minority Serving Institution (HMSI). For example, 40 percent of Pell recipients who earned summer credits graduated in four years, compared to just 20 percent among those with no summer credits. Fifty three percent of HMSI students who earned summer credits graduated in five years. Tellingly, of those HMSI students without summer credits, only 20 percent finished their degrees in five years.

“To increase timely graduation rates, we need more students to meet credit hour benchmarks. Data tell a compelling story: expanding summer enrollments significantly increases the odds that more students meet these critical milestones” said Andrew Kelly, UNC System senior vice president for Strategy and Policy.

UNCA’s Landon Ward takes students in his Ecology and Field Biology course on a learning excursion. Photo Credit: UNC Asheville Photographer Adam Taylor.
Dr. Matthew Thomas-Reid leads a discussion in his Critical Perspectives on Learning and Teaching course in Appalachian’s Reich College of Education.

Making Sense of Dollars and Cents: Financing Summer School

Summer school is a cost-effective option. Nevertheless, in the past, one of the impediments to summer enrollment has been financial strain. Historically, not a lot of aid has been available for summer school students.

But this is beginning to change. Just recently, summer Pell Grants were made available, giving low-income students broader access to summer school.

At the institution level, some universities are exploring ways to support students who want to continue their studies through the summer. Using funds from the UNC System, UNC Asheville is able to cover tuition for students in its First to Finish Program. Through this innovative program, now in its second year, 94 students received a scholarship to take one of six courses in UNCA’s liberal arts core curriculum. These students are one or two classes short of reaching the next class standing, making summer the ideal time to complete requirements and catch up on their curriculum.

For many of these students, this little nudge is enough to generate considerable momentum. About half in the First to Finish Program took the initiative to enroll in a second summer course, bringing them even closer to degree completion and helping them stay abreast of their classmates.

Elsewhere, financial aid offices at constituent institutions have explored various strategies for helping students find financial aid for the summer.

For example, just a few years ago, students at Appalachian State University jumped through hoops just to see if summer school was a viable option. First, they formally enrolled in classes, and then they completed a separate financial aid application form. Most students found this two-step process cumbersome; many did not understand that they needed to complete the form, so their aid was delayed. As a result, some students—unsure whether they were eligible for aid—simply opted out of summer classes altogether.

Now, however, the enrollment and financial aid application processes are fused and much simpler. Once a student is enrolled for summer classes, the financial aid office automatically sends an email informing them of their summer aid eligibility (or lack thereof). Appalachian’s IT department and financial aid office worked to streamline summer processing so that students now get the information they need far more quickly … and with much less work.

Similarly, when students register for summer courses at UNC Greensboro, the Financial Aid Office automatically notifies those with an existing FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) on file whether or not they are eligible for a summer award.

“We think just getting them to register for summer is a big step,” said Deborah Tollefson, director of UNCG’s Financial Aid Office. “Once they find out how inexpensive summer classes are, they are more likely to take the class, even if they don’t qualify for financial aid.”

In addition, UNCG email campaigns specifically target Pell Grant-eligible students who start to fall behind. Messages encourage those who fail to earn 30 credits in a year or who are on the verge of graduating to see summer school as an affordable option.

A traditional summer classroom at Fayetteville State University. Photo Credit: UNC Asheville Photographer Adam Taylor.

Summer Heat Enhances Flexibility

More and more frequently, institutions are also capitalizing on new digital technologies to make summer school a more affordable and more flexible option. 

Given its core constituency, Fayetteville State University has learned the value in offering maximum flexibility to its students. Twenty four percent of the university’s students are military affiliated. Fifty one percent are adult learners. Seventy eight percent are commuter students. In short, most FSU students have competing obligations that might intrude upon a hefty fall and spring course schedule.

The university has maximized the use of summer school precisely to make pathways to graduation more convenient for students. In summer 2019, it is offering roughly 450 courses. Many of these classes are gateway courses in the university’s cornerstone subjects: business, psychology, and criminal justice. This gives more students more options for completing the entry-level classes they need before moving on to more specialized coursework.

FSU and other UNC System institutions enhance this flexibility by prioritizing online rather than face-to-face summer courses. This allows students to save money. Not only is summer tuition more affordable; students also don’t have to pay on-campus housing expenses and fees.

“The real triumph at FSU is that our colleges are really buying into the idea that they can be more intentional about offering summer school in a way that makes sense to students,” said Dr. Jane Smith, FSU’s director of Summer School. “They are rethinking what we can do to get students through college in four years in a more student-centered way. That’s the goal—to prevent them from racking up additional, unnecessary expenses.”

“Since our inception, FSU has dedicated itself to helping students in need,” Smith continued. “Summer school helps us to fill that niche, reaching out and offering more opportunities to students who are underserved or unserved. This includes providing services for more untraditional students.”

Pre-K campers learn about ecology and animals during the NC Arboretum’s Curious Critters camp.
Summer camp in NC State’s College of Design.
Students participating in NCSSM’s Summer Research & Innovation Program network with Triangle professionals over lunch.
Getting in step during a summer intensive at UNCSA. Photo Credit: Christine Rucker

Building Bridges Over the Summer

Rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors aren’t the only ones benefitting from the heightened campus activity, either. Many UNC System institutions have developed programs specifically designed to prime incoming freshmen for success even before they’ve officially started their college careers.

N.C. A & T’s Aggie Success Academy helps high school graduates make more effective transitions to college life. The program adopts a four-pronged approach to ease students’ entry into the university.

Everyone in the program will commit to a “math boot camp.” Math is one of higher education’s most notorious stumbling blocks. The boot camp primes incoming Aggies to succeed by using the summer intensive to cover basic skills and strategies. In addition, academy participants also learn how to do basic coding. Over the summer, they design a tablet app. This experience doesn’t just give them marketable skills; it also builds transferrable critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will help carry them through all their college coursework.

While they are getting practiced at taking college-level classes, participants will also collaborate with an onsite learning specialist to discover study strategies that best suit their individual needs.

Perhaps most importantly, the immersive experience integrates anxious and, in many cases, shy students into the Aggie community. Creating this sense of belonging is especially important for rural and first generation students, who, in all likelihood, arrive on campus with no framework for anticipating what college life is like.

The Aggie Success Program is not an isolated initiative. Across the System, institutions are doing more to give incoming students a head start.

At North Carolina Central University, the Aspiring Eagles Academy summer session gives students from low-income families and first-generation college students an opportunity to jump start their college careers. Participants can take as many as three college courses. Just as importantly, they attend workshops and seminars that introduce them to campus life and promote effective strategies for academic success.

NC State’s Summer Start is also designed to introduce students to the rigors of college academics, but it isn’t just designed for incoming freshmen. Transfer students and international students are also encouraged to test the waters before wading into the deep end of the university experience.

A Season for Building

By no means is this an exhaustive list of all of the learning activities taking place across the UNC System this summer.  Summer Research & Innovation Programs for rising seniors at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Summer intensives at UNC School of the Arts, camps for K-12 students, and festivals for the community … UNC System campuses are bustling with activity in June and July. Even The North Carolina Arboretum amps up its educational programming over the summer, hosting camps and workshops for learners of all ages.

No longer is the summer reserved for restoring tired paint and updating facilities. More and more, it is a season for building minds and shoring up pathways to long-term success.