Summer bridge programs

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Bridge programs focus on preparing incoming students to succeed in undergraduate or graduate coursework. They fill in gaps in previous training, acknowledging that economic and social forces have caused unlevel playing fields in prior educational experiences. Recent efforts in economics include one-year pre-doctoral and master’s programs, which are designed to enrich students’ skills in math, economic theory, and econometrics to increase their likelihood of graduate program acceptance and success; the University of Wisconsin, the University of Texas at Austin, Duke University, Tufts University, the University of California at Los Angeles, Washington University, and Vanderbilt University currently offer such programs, to name a few. While these efforts have not yet been evaluated, well-designed bridge programs are used successfully in physics and other disciplines to increase the number of underrepresented minority students earning doctoral degrees. (See, for example, Stassun, K. G., Sturm, S., Holley-Bockelmann, K., Burger, A., Ernst, D. J., & Webb, D. 2011. “The Fisk-Vanderbilt Master's-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program: Recognizing, enlisting, and cultivating unrealized or unrecognized potential in underrepresented minority students.” American Journal of Physics 79: 374-379).

Summer bridge programs (SBP) are typically month-long intensive preparatory coursework offered to entering undergraduates with poor or little to no background in an academic subject. Several studies have found that bad experiences or poor performance in core introductory courses lead to much of the documented attrition rate among minority students, particularly in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. STEM students with less previous experience in basic calculus, physics, chemistry, and writing are at a significant disadvantage in large introductory classes, which are gateways to upper-level coursework, and often these large classes are not nurturing learning environments. In economics, attrition rates among minority students may be high due to similar dynamics. Economics students with little previous experience in basic calculus, technical writing, and economics are at a disadvantage and therefore have negative experiences in core introductory courses and are less likely to pursue a degree in the field.

The University of Pennsylvania investigated the efficacy of a 4-week residential SBP designed to ease transition to the college environment for “at risk” freshmen. Participants were selected on basis of high school rank and standardized test scores and randomly assigned to experimental or control groups. Courses undertaken included rigorous academic work in English, mathematics, and a course from the student’s intended major. The Penn SBP emphasizes collaborative learning, time management skill formation, individual- and team-based assessments, close faculty involvement, and one-on-one student-student interaction. After the program, participants were also encouraged to maintain ties with a faculty advisor and collaborative learning groups over the course of the regular semester. The efficacy of the program was determined by comparing cumulative GPA, retention rate, interviews, and other standardized metrics between control and experimental groups. The physics SBP students “scored one letter grade higher in cumulative grade point average for the freshman year. [Additionally], all of the students from the 1991 stretch physics class subsequently joined in as research students during the summer of 1992.” Increased involvement with research is known to increase retention rates in STEM fields. Similar SBP at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Louisiana State University with engineering and biology respectively have seen the same success with retention.

Recently, Lucie Schmidt, of Williams College, has analyzed the effectiveness of A Bridge Program for Economics.