College students trading summer break for ‘summer swirl’

While only 42 percent of first-time, full-time students at four-year colleges will earn their degree within four years, a growing number are working to increase their chances of on-time graduation by spending their summers taking classes, writes The Hechinger Report. And since many four-year colleges lack robust summer class offerings due to institutional, staffing, and financial barriers, their students are turning to community colleges for the season—a phenomenon known as “summer swirl.” “This just all points to the fact that students are going down nontraditional paths of enrollment and enrolling in multiple institutions,” said Faye Huie, a research associate at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which found that “summer swirlers” are more likely to graduate from their home institutions than peers who take the summer off.

Shifting the academic calendar

The traditional nine months on, three months off school year dates back to agrarian times, when students were needed back home each summer to harvest crops, The Hechinger Report notes. But demand for summer course offerings is growing, and four-year colleges are starting to plan for change. In addition, the Department of Education last year extended Pell Grant opportunities from two semesters to three per academic year, with Pell-eligible students receiving an average summer grant of $1,500.

Focus on access and availability

Two-year colleges, meanwhile, are seizing the opportunity to serve prospective summer swirlers, building on their institutions’ experience managing transfer credits and nontraditional enrollment patterns. Many are actively marketing their summer offerings, touting competitive price points and finding a receptive audience.

University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) student Sanaa Mironov, for example, is trying to get back on track for her original graduation date after almost a year off to care for her newborn. To do so, she is taking a four-credit class for $690 at Montgomery College that would have cost $1,560 at UMBC.

“It’s reducing the amount of time that I have to take to complete my degree, and it’s also helping me financially, since I’m paying everything out of pocket,” said Mironov.

Students are also drawn to community colleges for convenient campus locations and smaller class sizes. “One of our major tenets is to be available and to offer access to all students,” said Keri Bowman, director of academic planning and advising at Northern Virginia Community College.

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