Leveraging Up Summers on Campus; Avoiding Lost Opportunities

By Karen Gross

Perhaps it is New England’s long winter and seemingly interminable wait for spring that has me thinking about what colleges could do with their campuses during the summer.

The options are almost infinite, although the cost-benefit analysis clearly varies. Some colleges literally hand-over their campuses to outside groups for athletic programs (think Nike camps) and local theatre groups; faculty and staff basically vacate the premises. This utilizes abundant athletic facilities and housing, and it seems to be a clear moneymaker. And of course, if a nearby campus has these programs, other local campuses will not get similar opportunities due to market saturation.

Other colleges run a full set of academic offerings in the summer (albeit a bit more relaxed based on personal experience). For these colleges, spending a summer semester on campus is a requirement for students, and it has the marked benefit of distributing housing needs throughout the year as students spend semesters abroad or take semesters off. This requires availability of willing full-time faculty and quality visiting faculty and is another moneymaker, given mandated student enrollment.

On our campus and many others, we do an amalgam of programming: a limited summer session for our own students (usually to enable them to catch up—as opposed to getting ahead or to complete “stretch” courses like Anatomy and Physiology); some courses are online; others are hybrid and some are on campus (especially those with laboratories). We conduct summer orientation for our prospective students and specialized orientations for selected new students. We offer weeklong overnight summer program for prospective healthcare students (run by an outside provider who offers these programs across the state of Vermont). We provide short stays for various professional education conferences; overnight stays for a college counselor program; and day and overnight athletic programs in two or three sports.

We used to do weddings. Other times we allowed outside groups to use our campus. For example, there was a summer music camp for children that disrupted the work of our campus staff, but the sound of instruments was terrific.

One change we made over the years—and I think the right one—was to limit programs to those that tied to the college’s areas of expertise, albeit broadly defined: education. I think the turning point was a wedding that had to be moved inside because of rain and the accompanying chaos (and yelling) that was involved; brides and their parents are high maintenance.

Yet, I am not sure we are thinking optimally about summer opportunities for our own students and for prospective students. For starters, with the changing nature of America’s higher education landscape, colleges need more auxiliary revenue, if only to serve as a buffer in the event that enrollment does not match projections. Our own activities are not designed, for the most part, to maximize revenue, and that is an obvious concern. Next, many of our own first-generation students want to stay on campus in the summer for a variety of reasons including taking courses where a single focus will foster their success, for example, in statistics, chemistry or microbiology. This option has been increasingly difficult fiscally because federal student aid and Pell Grants are maxed out during the academic year, eliminating summer support.

For some of our students, being on campus in the summer is preferable to going home where the environs may be dangerous and rife with temptations; at the college, they have structure, friends and support services from SVC staff and faculty. We have used grants to support these efforts.

Finally, we want our prospective students to engage with us in the summer as a way of ensuring a smoother transition in the fall but this is an expensive effort, as most of the participating students do not pay enough to offset the actual costs. Stated most simply, we are offering opportunities but summers are not a quality, consistent, growing revenue stream. And, the planning for summer requires nothing short of a scheduling miracle.

Speaking to other college presidents, I’ve learned we are not alone in our struggles to re-think summer on college campuses. Here are a few suggestions worth considering, ones that seem educationally and societally wise. They share one major drawback: they are unfunded suggestions and absent quality support mechanisms, they cannot be implemented easily or immediately. Some possible funding options to operationalize these suggestions follow.

1. Partner with high schools with low-income high school students to offer six-week “pre-college” programs at low or no cost to the students but with institutional financial remuneration. Student stipends would need to be a part of this as many students work in the summers to support their families. These programs could vary dramatically from Introduction to College Studies (learning about a syllabus; managing time; developing interpersonal skills; navigating separation) to substantive courses designed to foster creativity and passion for a particular subject.

2. Offer extensive, consecutive weeklong summer opportunities for high school counselors at schools that serve many first-generation students so these professionals can become more familiar with collegiate opportunities, expanding their knowledge of colleges themselves to optimize student fit as well as the issues that first-generation students encounter on campus. These programs could be structured as credit-bearing or CEU’s but as with the prior suggestion, they need to be at low or no cost to the counselors. To make this more enticing, there could be additive programming for the counselors’ partner/spouse and children, also at low or no cost.

3. Develop training programs matched to community needs that could be offered to college students free of charge (with free room and board and a summer stipend). Then, these trained students could work in the local community in the summer, sharing their knowledge and expertise and enhancing the community and providing important college-community links. One example would be around drugs and the growing heroin epidemic in many communities; students could be trained as “Drug Educators,” traveling to summer school programs, churches and community centers sharing knowledge and information on heroin addiction, its effects and available solutions. Other areas where such programming is possible include obesity, diabetes, nutrition and exercise. Imagine teams of college students spreading out throughout local communities in ways that benefit the community members and the students.

Now, in the relative near term, public support for these efforts seems unlikely. States are not flush (although states with portability of state grants could reallocate those dollars to programs such as these) and the federal government is unlikely to add grants to students or colleges, although it could improve allocations of Work Study or Supplemental Opportunity Grant (SEOG) dollars to institutions that optimize summer opportunities for low-income families. Local school systems and towns are fiscally constrained. That leaves private dollars—donations or grants—as the most viable option. But there are challenges there too of course, including that colleges may have other uses for these dollars, and foundations may have clear donor directives.

So we need to think boldly about new revenue sources—public or private. Here are a few: use of Cy Pres awards in class-action consumer litigation settlements or Department of Education settlements within the Office of Civil Rights; reallocation of endowment gifts above a certain dollar amount made to wealthy institutions with endowments over $1 billion through a designated newly created central trust fund (mandated redistribution of dollars); or a government variant of the Buffett Rule, ameliorating added taxation above a certain dollar amount in exchange for donations to an educational trust to support a prescribed set of programs that benefit education for vulnerable populations. Partnering among colleges would ameliorate some of the costs, and local businesses could become partners too. I am sure there are other approaches.

Colleges have a valuable resource: summer space and personnel. There are individuals who can benefit from programming in the summers. To match these resources with needs, we should focus on funding. In this process, it’s worth considering the cost of not funding these efforts. That may be way higher than the cost of the programs themselves, once we figure out how to make that happen fairly and feasibly.

Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.


Related Posts:

NEJHE articles by Karen Gross

Stemming Summer Learning Loss



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