Using Stimulus Funds to Seize the Summer

Thursday, May 27, 2021
Ryan Reyna

With significant new investments from the American Rescue Plan, education leaders at districts, states, and postsecondary institutions have the opportunity to not only combat the effects of the pandemic, but to take aggressive and innovative action to close longstanding equity gaps and invest in the future of education. 

One of the most urgent areas for leaders at all levels to address is maximizing programming and supports during this upcoming summer to ensure students stay on track to move into postsecondary education from high school. We have already seen deep and sustained drops in higher education enrollment throughout the pandemic, and a generation of students is at risk of becoming a “Lost COVID Cohort.” With creative use of stimulus funds, states, districts, and higher education leaders can work together to take aggressive actions over the summer to reach and support students in their transitions to higher education this fall, making sure they are not only academically prepared but equipped to navigate the financial and logistical challenges of enrolling in college. 

We believe there are several ways that states, districts, and higher education institutions can creatively invest their stimulus dollars to maximize the impact of this summer for students: 

Deploy bold summer melt campaigns. Every year, in a phenomenon known as “summer melt,” millions of students who intend to enroll in postsecondary education do not arrive on any campus in the fall. The challenges of the pandemic have only exacerbated this problem. State and district education leaders should consider devoting some of the stimulus funding designated for summer programming to comprehensive campaigns aimed at “freezing” summer melt. Future Forward Texas, a collaborative effort to help maintain college enrollment rates in the state despite the pandemic, is a great example of such a campaign. The partnership provides free research-based digital content to school counselors to help their students graduate and matriculate into college. It’s Go Time TN, a joint initiative in Tennessee, provided students with a centralized resource to help them navigate the necessary steps to stay on track for college enrollment. States can take the lead in building on these campaigns to promote awareness and provide resources under a catchy banner so that students have a go-to source of information to stay on track for college. 

Build summer bridge programs. To help keep students on track academically, states can offer “summer bridge” courses to students who may need an additional boost to be ready for college classes. Just this week, the Indiana Department of Education, Indiana Commission for Higher Education and Ivy Tech Community College announced a new “Bridging the Gap” initiative to help prepare 2021 high school graduates for success in college. The initiative is designed to reach graduating Indiana students who were met with an educational disruption due to COVID-19, including fewer opportunities to prepare for college entrance assessments and other college preparations. Eligible students will be invited to take online, individualized college preparation modules at Ivy Tech Community College with an Ivy Tech instructor. Students will take a pre-assessment that individualizes the course content for them, and can work at their own pace in completing the identified college readiness skills. Additionally, participants will enroll in a student success course to prepare for successful entry into higher education, with direct advising support. Upon successful completion of the modules and success course, students will earn college credit, an exemption to place directly into credit-bearing coursework at Ivy Tech and the opportunity to earn up to $300 in financial incentives for completing the program components. 

Texas also used CARES Act funding last year to launch its summer bridge program, which provided advising and academic catch up for students. The first year of the program was a strong success; students who participated in Texas College Bridge significantly outperformed traditional college enrollees in their performance in entry-level college mathematics and English courses in the fall of 2020. 

Ensure widespread access to dual enrollment courses. When high school students have the opportunity to take college courses, whether during the school year or over the summer, they are more likely to successfully enroll and persist in higher education. There is an opportunity here for higher education institutions to use some of their American Rescue Plan funding to take ownership of the postsecondary transitions space and help shepherd students through their doors. Federal guidance related to the distribution of new higher education stimulus funds makes clear that dual enrollment students are eligible to receive financial support. Last summer, institutions like Northern Virginia Community College used CARES Act funding to make dual enrollment courses free so that students could get a jump on their path to a credential with labor market value. Similar offerings can be replicated and scaled across many more institutions with the new funds available this spring. 

Stimulus funds are already making their way to states, districts, and colleges, and quick action will be imperative for making sure students don’t fall through the cracks this summer. We encourage leaders to prioritize immediate strategies in the next few months to make sure students are able to successfully move to and through higher education even in this challenging environment.