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Two students sit inside at a table on a sunny day at Kent State University

A summer success program provides at-risk students with free summer tuition and financial aid to support their persistence and accelerate time to degree.

Bob Christy/Kent State University

Institutional data at Kent State University in Ohio showed a gap in supports for students after their first year that help them persist and progress toward their degree in a timely manner. In response, leaders created Summer Advantage, a program that offers discounted tuition for summer courses and development workshops to prepare students for the academic year and beyond.

Summer Advantage is designed to help underrepresented students graduate in four years by building a support network and giving them success tools. The program launched in 2017 with 51 students and quickly scaled to 186 the next year. Now the program serves around 250 students each summer and has been recognized for its impact on persistence and graduation.

How it works: Kent State staff partner with the Office of Institutional Research to capture the students with the greatest need. These could be underrepresented minority students, first-generation learners, those from low-income families or students who are behind the credit-hour mark they need to complete their degree on time, explains Melanie Jones, director of student success programs.

Staffers then market the program to these students, encouraging them to enroll. Once students opt in, they work alongside their academic adviser to enroll in a course or courses that fits their graduation requirements.

The university covers tuition costs up to three credit hours and provides financial aid for additional costs such as course materials, technology and housing on a case-by-case basis.

The program starts with an orientation in April, and students can opt in to a three-week, five-week or eight-week summer course taken in person or online.

During their summer course, students also must participate in four engagement activities, which are offered by different university departments, including the career center and multicultural centers. Workshops cover professional and personal development topics such as résumé writing, financial literacy and identity.

Workshops are offered multiple times throughout the summer, and students can select whichever offerings most interest them. “We try to allow students to personalize that workshop journey in the summer, and our job is to provide a myriad of opportunities for them to do that,” Jones says.

Scaling up: Having institutional buy-in has been one of the key drivers of the program’s success, Jones says. Summer Advantage has the support of senior leadership, faculty members and staff, who all contribute to the shared vision of supporting students’ timely degree completion.

The program has a budget from the provost’s office that covers financial aid for tuition as well as basic needs funding to address barriers to participation. Kent State received a grant from Key Bank, which has also helped cover tuition costs, Jones says.

While the program has grown nearly 400 percent in the number of students served, budget and buy-in continue to be the greatest limitations in scaling.

Ensuring students have wraparound assistance is critical, from financial aid and academic advisers to staff and faculty members who care about their achievements.

While Summer Advantage has buy-in from faculty and summer instructors, staff will continue to grow that support by sharing students’ stories regularly, highlighting their needs and how the institution can support their success, Jones says.

The impact: Over all, the program has been successful in aiding student persistence and graduation.

Staff track different data including students’ year-to-year retention, four- and six-year graduation rates, and time to degree completion. Among the initial cohort in 2017, 98 percent of participants retained from summer to fall, and 80 percent of participants graduated within six years.

“Some of our latest data has shown that the program has helped students reduce their time to degree completion,” Jones says, which is critical in helping students graduate with less debt.

Among the 2021 cohort, Summer Advantage students had a 11.7 percent increase in persistence, compared to their peers who did not participate, and the 2022 cohort had a 14.7 percent increase in persistence.

Past participants also provide survey data, sharing how the program helped them focus on their academics and personal goals and how they would participate again if given the chance. Most students only take advantage of the program once, as it is designed to serve those with the greatest needs, but occasionally students get another chance to benefit from it.

Summer Advantage has also been nationally recognized for its retention efforts. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities named Kent State a finalist for the 2023 Degree Completion Award, and the university won a 2018 Institutional Excellence for Students in Transition Award, presented by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

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