Build a Better Future with 'Bridges' to College

Published jan. 29, 2018

So many young people hoping to enter college or career training face serious obstacles to achieving their dreams-poor academic preparation and little postsecondary guidance, to name just two. It's discouraging to see the same problems across the country. But we know a solution that works: "bridging" that spans the chasm between high school and college.

Bridge programs set up aspiring college-goers for success, introducing them to the academic expectations and social-emotional environment that await them. When these programs include proven practices, underprepared students improve college readiness in math, reading, and writing-the keys to future learning. They also gain critical non-academic skills, such as how to apply for financial aid and explore career options.

A postsecondary credential with value in the labor market has become the most reliable ticket to well-paying jobs and a middle-class life. So, here's a thought: What would happen if everyone who wanted to earn postsecondary credentials, but needed extra preparation, had the opportunity to enroll in a bridge program before starting college? And how would this affect historically underrepresented groups, such as low-income students and students of color?

There is plenty of sound evidence to support that bridge programs improve outcomes for incoming college students. For example, researchers in Texas who studied eight summer bridge programs at community colleges and four-year colleges found that bridge students went on to pass college-level introductory courses in math and writing at a higher rate than the control group. 

Scaling bridge programs would, among other things, reduce the need for remedial education, save students money on remedial courses, and, most importantly, increase credential completion rates. 

To that end, JFF has developed a set of core features for bridge to college/career programs that is being implemented, with promising outcomes, in communities across the country. These models offer adaptable frameworks that can help guide local efforts to improve credential completion of low-income learners.

In spreading bridge models, we should also build on lessons from efforts to improve high school graduation rates. Between 1973 and 2013, high school completion rates among 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States increased from 83.7 percent to 92 percent, according to The National Center for Education Statistics. What's more, the gaps in completion rates between white youth and black and Hispanic youth narrowed significantly, though they didn't disappear. 

This progress can be replicated in postsecondary education by focusing resources, such as bridge programs, on areas with the greatest populations of underserved students.

Now, how can this translate to enhancing the current workforce and expanding economic advancement? Consider the distribution of jobs added since the recovery from the Great Recession, according to Georgetown's Center on Education and Workforce:

  • Workers with at least some postsecondary education now make up 65 percent of total employment. Bachelor's degree holders now earn 57 percent of all wages.
  • Bachelor's degree holders gained 4.6 million jobs and associate's degree holders gained 3.1 million jobs, compared to workers with a high school diploma or less, who gained only 80,000 jobs.

Based on these numbers, the stakes have become even higher to close the economic opportunity gaps that persist in the U.S. The next crucial battle of the 21st century is improving postsecondary enrollment and completion rates for the growing number of students earning high school credentials so they can find family-supporting careers.  

In the process, we must pay close attention to low-income first-generation college students-disproportionately students of color-who tend to drop out of postsecondary education in much higher numbers than their peers. By spreading bridge programs to communities and students that need them most, we can ensure this is a battle we win.