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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

U of M's summer program bridges gap between high school and college

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

If you graduated high school in June and college doesn’t start until fall, probably homework is the last thing on your mind during summer. But for some recent high school graduates, the summer before college is filled with homework, study groups and workshops.

That's how Chelsie Thompson's summer is shaping up. Thompson is 18 years old and she insists everyone (including reporters) call her "Phancie." She’s from Melvindale, a small, working-class city just outside Detroit, and she's spending seven weeks of her summer on the campus of the University of Michigan, taking three college courses for credit and learning her way around the university. 

So why is Thompson here early? Well, like many lucky students, she got into the college of her dreams. But there was a hitch. Before she could attend the U of M in the fall, she’d have to go through something called the Summer Bridge program. "I guess I did feel like a little disappointed," she confesses, "but then as soon as I said that I got into U of M, everyone was all like 'oh yeah!'"

Thompson told her friends she was moving to campus early over the summer, you know, to get a head start on her studies. "It's like, I don't have to, but I'm starting classes early, that's what I would say," she says. 

So, Thompson told a little bit of a fib to her friends. The Summer Bridge program isn’t optional. It’s mandatory. She can't continue in the fall until she finishes the seven-week summer program. So she’s spending her summer in Ann Arbor, in a dorm, alongside 239 other incoming freshmen. They spend most of their days in overly air conditioned classrooms, taking a math class, a writing class, and studying for exams.

"I guess I did feel like a little disappointed, but then as soon as I said that I got into U of M, everyone was all like 'oh yeah!'" – Phancie Thompson, Bridge student

Harold Waters runs the Summer Bridge program where he teaches a course on “life skills” – things like time management, what to do if you don’t get along with your roommate, and which study halls give out free pop!

The students pay tuition to take three classes and they receive grades and college credit for them. They work closely with tenured faculty and also have mandatory workshops at night to do their homework. According to LSA Today, more than 10,000 students have gone through the Summer Bridge program, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. 

So who are the students who go through Bridge? Well, it’s complicated.

"There is no one answer to that," says Waters. "Typically what we will say is that there’s a gap somewhere. So either they have very, very, very high GPAs and lower test scores, or the other way around." Waters says if the gap is not addressed, the students "could fall behind at the University of Michigan, and the goal is always to graduate them." Waters says he's proud with Bridge's outcomes, but says the ultimate goal would be to get Bridge students to graduate at the general U of M rate. The most current data puts U of M's six year graduate rate at 92%

There are a number of "Bridge-like" programs across the country: UCLA, University of California - Berkeley, University of Texas at Austin and several others offer their own versions of summer programs with similar goals of improving diversity at their schools. Waters, who graduated from the Summer Bridge program back in the early 1990s, says there is no standard model for these programs, but he would like to develop one. His goal is to bring leaders from all the different Bridge-type programs across the country together for a conference to establish best practices.

76% of Bridge students graduate from U of M within six years, according to the most recent data. That's lower than U of M's overall graduation rate, but much higher than the national graduation rates for similarly profiled students at similarly selective universities.

None of the students at U of M's Summer Bridge program are told specifically why they were chosen for the program. Phancie Thompson thinks she was picked because of all the clubs she participated in as a high school student. Plus she was really nervous about making the transition from home to college life, so she thinks the admissions folks intuited that and put her in Bridge to help her make the adjustment. "They read my mind!" she says.

Nadia Wallace, an 18-year old from Detroit, viewed her acceptance into Bridge "as a gift." Because Bridge students get so much quality time with faculty and staff over the summer, she took it as a sign that the school wanted the chance to get to know her more personally. "I must have shown something really good to be chosen," she adds.

Around half the students are the first in their family to go to college. Many come from lower-income families. Some are from teeny tiny towns in the U.P. who come to Bridge to get an opportunity to adjust to life at a large, diverse campus like U of M’s. 

The most recent data for six-year graduation rates for students who go through Bridge are pretty high – around 76%.Now, that’s lower than U of M’s overall graduation rate, but way higher than the national graduation rates for similarly profiled students at similarly selective universities.

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Chelsie "Phancie" Thompson was "disappointed" when she first found out she had to do the Bridge program, but she sees now how it's "going to help you in the long run."

Four weeks into U of M's Bridge program, Phancie Thompson is singing a different tune than she was when she first got to campus. "Whoever came up with the Bridge program was a really smart person," she says. "When you're here at the Bridge program, people think that ... it's too much work, but at the end of the day it's really going to help you in the long run."

It doesn’t hurt that Phancie and the rest of her Summer Bridge cohort will start their freshmen year with eight or nine college credits, and (bonus!) they now know which study hall they can go to for endless amounts of free pop. Crucial when you’re pulling an all-nighter. (Psst! It's in the School of Education lounge.)

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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