SILVER SPRING, Md. — Towson University student Christelle Etienne isn’t whiling away these long, lazy days of summer lounging by the pool or hanging out with friends from high school.
Instead, she’s sitting in a classroom at Montgomery College taking classes in anatomy and physiology.
A pre-nursing and foreign language major with a double minor, Etienne is hoping the extra work will keep her on schedule to earn her bachelor’s degree.
That’s something only 42 percent of first-time, full-time college students manage to do, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And the longer students take to finish, the more they wind up paying.
A growing number of students have started to forgo long summer breaks to cut costs and stay on track to graduation. And since many four-year institutions largely shut down between May and late August thanks to an academic calendar that predates the industrial era, many are going to community colleges.
Listening to lectures and slogging through schoolwork in the summer “is no joke,” Etienne said. “But there are so many classes I have to take.”
This phenomenon has grown so much it has a name: “summer swirl.” There’s been a steady increase in summer swirlers anxious to speed up their progress to graduation, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks this. They are also more likely to graduate from their home institutions than their classmates who don’t take summer classes, the clearinghouse found.
“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 there.
Community colleges are happy for the extra business. Their enrollment has declined by 27 percent, or nearly two million students, since 2010, the clearinghouse reports. Many are now actively promoting their summer programs. “Success Doesn’t Stop with Summer,” proclaims Suffolk County Community College in New York, over a photo of a bespectacled professor holding class outdoors. “It’s affordable! It’s easy! It’s flexible! It’s smart!” declares Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey. Montgomery College has also launched a campaign to draw more visiting students and has a dedicated webpage for them.
Meanwhile, changes to federal financial aid have made summer classes more accessible. Since last year, students have been able to use federal Pell Grants for summer study; those who do so get an average of $1,500, according to the National Summer Learning Association.
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Despite these changes, students who want to graduate as quickly as possible still bump up against the traditional schedule. The current nine-month academic calendar dates back to agrarian times, when students were needed to help with planting and the harvest, said Ken Smith, vice provost for academic resource management at Virginia Tech, a four-year university that has two summer sessions.
Around the turn of the 20th century, some schools began to offer a few summer sessions in which students would do field studies in the warmer months. But attempts to change the traditional academic schedule didn’t take hold.
Smith pointed to institutions that considered making changes, such as Purdue, which announced that it would switch to what it called a “balanced trimester” plan in 2012, with a full slate of summer courses. But that never happened because it would have required the rewriting of traditional nine-month faculty contracts and figuring out how faculty would be paid to work in the summer, a Purdue spokesperson said. At the time, the federal government also limited Pell Grants to two terms per year.
The average number of courses offered per four-year campus in the summer actually fell between 2014 and 2017, the last period for which the figures are available, according to a survey by the Association of University Summer Sessions. Those universities and colleges that responded to the survey offered an average of 766 summer courses, though more than a third were online or parts of study abroad programs.
In the future, four-year public universities may add more, largely because they’re under pressure from legislatures and others to use their facilities year-round, said Rachel Miller, who directs summer programs at the University of Virginia and serves as president of the association. “We are seeing a push, especially for state institutions, to justify having the lights on and the buildings occupied during the summer.”
For now, however, community colleges are often the only choice for students at four-year institutions that don’t offer the summer classes they need.
Criminal justice major Kyara Hernandez Escobar has taken classes at Montgomery College since 2015, when she fell behind in her program at Trinity Washington University.
This summer she’s taking four classes at Montgomery, in part because Trinity Washington didn’t offer the courses she needed. “The majority of classes [Trinity] was offering, I had already taken,” she said.
Sanaa Mironov took off most of last year from her studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, or UMBC, when she had a baby. She’s catching up by taking math and science classes this summer at Montgomery College, where she already plans to take two physics courses next summer.
By doing this, “I am still able to finish school within four years,” she said. “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.”
For a four-credit class during the summer at UMBC, Mironov would have paid $1,560 in resident tuition. The same class at Montgomery College costs around $690. The community college is also closer to where she lives.
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UMBC does offer summer courses — about 400 of them, compared to more than 1,000 at Montgomery College.
Beth Snyder Jones, UMBC’s associate vice provost for summer, winter and special programs, said her staff sends enrollment data to the academic departments about high-demand courses in the spring and fall, and about courses that were popular during previous summer sessions. “The goal is to offer classes [in the summer] that students need,” she said.
Thirty years ago, students might have taken “fun” classes during the summer, she said, “but nowadays we’re very aware that students have a lot on their plates, and they are going to take classes that advance them toward graduation.”
Engineering major Justin Glou, who just finished his freshman year at Syracuse University, is spending time this summer at Montgomery’s campus in Rockville, near where his family lives.
“I’m a little behind in math,” Glou said. “I thought since I needed to take Calculus II, I should take it somewhere close by over the summer to get it out of the way.”
Students also take summer classes at community colleges when they have demanding majors with a lot of required courses. John Brymer, a chemistry major with a pre-pharmacy minor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, realized in the spring that he’d need to do that if he wanted to graduate on time.
“You have a certain amount of prerequisites that you need to knock out just in general education before you apply for pharmacy school,” said Brymer, who is attending Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA, this summer. “I don’t know where I would fit these two classes in, if not the summer.”
Because NOVA offers two six-week sessions, Brymer was able to study there during the first half of the summer and still take half of July and all of August off.
Taylor Harris is an undergraduate at Hampton University, a private HBCU in Virginia, where she’s enrolled in a five-year bachelor’s-master’s program in architecture. Because architecture classes require a lot of studio time working on projects, she decided to take physics at Montgomery in the summer to lighten her load in the fall.
“It makes my schedule more manageable,” Harris said.
Marcus Peanort, associate dean of student affairs at Montgomery’s Germantown campus, said he’s talked to many students who also prefer the small size of general education courses at community colleges compared to large public institutions.
“If you’re taking Intro to Psych with 300 people and a TA, that’s a little bit different than taking a class over the summer … with 20 to 25 students and a faculty member who knows who you are,” Peanort said.
Whether those credits transfer back to a student’s four-year institution is up to them to figure out. In general, students who transfer lose more than 40 percent of the credits they’ve already earned and paid for, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. That figure, from a 2017 report that is the most recent available on the topic, accounts for all transfer students.
Summer swirlers have some protections against this. Montgomery requires visiting students to have their home institutions submit a “permission to enroll” form, for example. This not only exempts them from having to submit transcripts or take placement tests; it ensures that their credits will be accepted toward their degrees.
“They get the information from their home institution that says, ‘Yes, this student can take this course at your institution and it will be transferred back,’ ” said Jamin Bartolomeo, Montgomery’s dean of student access.
Many public institutions are also part of statewide agreements that ensure transfer credits will count. Some, including Montgomery, have additional credit-transfer arrangements with private and out-of-state public institutions.
NOVA sends course content summaries to students to submit to their schools to get approval in advance for classes they intend to take.
“We explain the procedure so the students always know that they’re not going to be paying for a class they’re not going to be able to utilize,” said Wende Ruffin-Lowry, coordinator of virtual advising.
Community colleges also have more experience accommodating students with nontraditional enrollment patterns and schedules than their four-year peers.
“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 NOVA. “I think that sometimes the focus on access and availability is less of a concern for four-year institutions.”
This story about community college summer classes was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.