Summer Bridge Programs: Impact and Tips for Success

Academic restructuring

Amid growing pressure on student retention and completion rates, much of the current research on factors in student success emphasizes both the importance of early intervention with at-risk students and increased attention to obstacles that confront students in the first weeks of their first term, including academic underpreparedness and the transition from the rigor, study hours, and study skills needed in high school to those needed in college.

More institutions are turning to summer bridge and mentoring programs to help bridge the gap between senior year at high school and freshman year at college.

To learn more, we turned this week to Wayne Jackson, director of multicultural academic and support services at the University of Central Florida. Jackson is a two-time national retention award recipient: the 2010 National Association of Academic Advising (NACADA) Outstanding Institutional Advising Program Certificate of Merit for his leadership in directing the Seizing Opportunities for Achievement and Retention (SOAR) summer bridge program, and the 2003 Noel-Levitz Retention Excellence Award for his work in directing the Minority Mentoring Program at The College of New Jersey.

SOAR is worth examining as a model of an effective program. One of the oldest summer bridge programs in the US, SOAR runs on a budget of $56,000 a year and devotes those resources to five key areas, taking a holistic approach to preparing students for goal-setting, rigorous study, and leadership in the student community:

  • Leadership development
  • Community-building
  • Mentoring
  • Student success strategies course
  • Academic courses with support

Measuring the Impact

We asked Jackson to share data — both hard numbers and anecdotes — that would illustrate the impact of SOAR. Jackson noted:

  • The retention rate from the summer bridge program for at-risk students to fall term is 98%, and 87% from freshman fall term to sophomore fall term — higher than the institution’s average of 85%, even though these are “at-risk” students. (Jackson does not have data on graduation rates, but is currently investigating that question.)
  • Jackson’s summer bridge students become student leaders. Because of the assistance they have received with goal-setting and because of their early and intensive engagement, many of the students in the program have taken leadership roles on campus. Jackson cites one example of a student who attended a leadership conference and, upon her return to campus, started UCF’s own chapter of a national organization for female students. At Jackson’s previous institution, a cohort of African American students later created their own alumni organization to raise scholarships for Latino and African American students.

Jackson adds: “Be intentional in inviting representatives from student government, prominent student organizations, and the academic resources center to talk with bridge students about the opportunities for leadership and how these can support various academic and career goals.”

Where You Can See Impact on a Small Budget

We also asked Jackson what he would recommend in the case of a very limited budget. “If you had only the funds to pilot one program to help with the transition to college,” he advises, “develop a formal mentoring program. If you train mentors effectively, they will be able to help students navigate the first academic year. But an intensive summer bridge program — with those mentors integrated into the program from day one — is a critical second step, because you can design that bridge to help overcome several of the most formidable first-term barriers, before the students ever start that first quarter of classes, as well as acclimating those students early to the campus and the support services available to them.”

Summer Bridge for STEM Students

To take closer look at how Jackson’s approach can be applied to a particular student cohort, we asked Jackson for tips in developing a summer bridge program for students entering the STEM disciplines.

“Your STEM students may not be at-risk students at first glance,” Jackson notes, “but lower-division STEM courses often have high drop/fail/withdraw rates. For many students, the transition from high-school mathematics or science to college courses is going to be a shock in terms of the difference in expectations around workload and study hours needed. You may have some students who are going from two hours of study per week during their senior year to a new expectation of ten, fifteen, twenty-five, or even forty study hours a week. Preparing them for the transition to fall term on your campus will be key to their persistence and their academic success. Getting them off to a good start academically is critical.”

Jackson suggests creating an immersive experience for summer bridge students who hope to enter STEM fields:

  • Model the rigor and coursework that will be expected of them during the fall term, providing structured schedules from 7:45 am to 7:00 pm; in the program at UCF, Jackson includes meetings with academic advisors, twice-a-week supplemental instruction, and a study hall three days each week. “Don’t just present information,” Jackson advises. “Model the level of rigor required. Some of our students have called this the boot camp. The program has a similar philosophy — preparing students for what will happen next.”
  • While clarifying what each student needs to bring to their studies, connect students with the support that is available at your institution. Take an approach of building shared ownership and partnership in their academic success. Clearly define the roles of both the student and the offices at your institution in achieving that success.
  • Have explicit discussions about the “mental fortitude” required to succeed in the STEM disciplines. Give students the opportunity to ask themselves the tough questions: Are they ready for the amount of study and labwork needed? Are they mentally prepared and committed to put in the effort needed?
  • Invite summer bridge students to set explicit goals — goals for their first term, academic four-year goals, career or graduate school goals, and social goals (such as joining or taking leadership in organizations that will advance thier career or graduate school goals.) Emphasize (both in the bridge program and throughout the first year) the importance of getting involved in internships, summer research programs, and other opportunities to advance the goals they have set.

In short, prepare students for the rigor of the program, educate them about what will be expected of them and what support they can expect of the institution, and encourage them to approach their curricular and co-curricular plans with intentionality and purpose.


A growing number of institutions have invested in summer bridge programs to help high school seniors or transfer students enter their first term more academically prepared. Yet recent studies of developmental summer bridge programs — such as this one in Texas — have found that most such programs achieve only minimal boosts in student retention.

Yet a handful of highly effective summer bridge programs have shown increases of 10% or more. Truly “leveling the playing field” for academically under-prepared students requires more than just getting them up to speed in academic knowledge or even awareness of academic support services. The key:

  • A focus on building a peer community/cohort
  • Programming that is designed to build academic confidence and “grit”