Bridging the Class Divide: The Qualitative Evaluation of A Summer Bridge Program for Low-Income Students at an Elite University

Schmertz, Barbara A., Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Wathington, Heather, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Deutsch, Nancy, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Roksa, Josipa, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Kenyon, Heather

This study qualitatively evaluates an elite university's summer bridge program, which is offered to low-income, academically talented, incoming first year students. The goals of the study were to provide an evaluation of a newly created summer bridge program and to explore the first-year experiences of low-income students at a selective institution. The study sought to understand how student participants' experiences differed from non-participants and how their perceptions of the program were aligned or misaligned with the views of the program administrators. The theoretical framework weaves together social reproduction and persistence theory to illuminate the students' stories and experiences before and within college. The research methodology included observations of the summer bridge program and semi-structured interviews with five administrative stakeholders tied to the summer intervention. In addition, two sets of semi-structured interviews were conducted with 20, low-income students, which included 10 program participants, four waitlisted students, and six students who had been invited but did not respond. Evaluative and phenomenological methods were used to analyze the interview, observation and document data. Findings reveal that participation in the summer bridge program did not eliminate the challenges students faced in their transition to and ongoing success in college. Instead, students' commitment to persist was tied to psychosocial characteristics, such as a sense of self-efficacy, and their ability and willingness to enact the highly valued social and cultural capital necessary within the elite university culture. Students' pre-college experiences influenced their successful negotiation of the first semesters at the university. In addition, while financial aid served to help equalize students' academic and social experiences, reminders of social class differences remained. The summer bridge program was established with the aim of helping low-income students transition to college and attracted students who varied in their academic skills, and social and cultural capital. Recommendations include honing the process by which students are selected and re-aligning the summer bridge program's goals and content to better support the needs of the students it aims to target. In addition, the results of the study illuminate the complex pathways to and through college for low-income students.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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