‘3-semester university’: Fayetteville State banks on free summer school to keep students

For many, the words “summer school” likely conjure images of unhappy students, sitting at their desks and longing to be anywhere else.

But that’s not the case at Fayetteville State University.

For the fourth-straight year, the university is providing universal, free summer school, an initiative that covers the cost of up to two courses — or seven credit hours — per undergraduate student, plus one course — up to three credit hours — for select graduate students. The program also covers the cost of on-campus housing and meals for select students.

And for the second year in a row, a record number of students are taking the university up on its offer. More than 4,400 students are enrolled in classes this summer term, accounting for roughly two-thirds of all students at the university.

The program, which began by using federal COVID-19 relief funds, is becoming central to the historically Black university’s brand.

“We like to say that we’re no longer a two-semester university. We are a three-semester university,” Chancellor Darrell Allison told The News & Observer in an interview Wednesday. “It’s not just fall, spring. It’s fall, spring and summer.”

But the program is more than the basis for a catchphrase or a marketing tool. It’s also directly impacting the university’s retention rates and helping more students graduate — and do so on-time, in four years, Allison said.

A new $750,000 donation to the university, given by an anonymous donor and announced Wednesday, will ensure summer school remains free to students for least three more years. But Allison plans for the initiative to go on much longer, saying that he and the university will continue to seek out both private donations and state funds to support the program.

“This is the way, the path forward, here,” Allison said. “We’re not just saying that, but our students are saying it and reflecting that through their actions.”

Fayetteville State University Chancellor Darrell Allison speaks at an event announcing historic summer school enrollment and a $750,000 donation to support the initiative, Wednesday, June 19, 2024.
Fayetteville State University Chancellor Darrell Allison speaks at an event announcing historic summer school enrollment and a $750,000 donation to support the initiative, Wednesday, June 19, 2024.

How summer school helps retain students

Sitting in his office Wednesday, Allison recalled sitting in the same spot about three years ago, in April 2021, as he began his time as the 12th chancellor of Fayetteville State. The university’s interim provost had provided him with a spreadsheet showing the number of students at the university who were not making adequate progress in their studies to graduate on-time.

Generally, undergraduate degrees require students to successfully complete 120 credit hours. That means, to graduate in four years, students should complete 30 credit hours in their first academic year. By the end of a student’s sophomore year, they should have completed at least a total of 60 hours, and by the end of their junior year, they should have completed a total of 90 hours.

The spreadsheet Allison viewed in 2021 showed — in “ballpark” figures, he recalled Wednesday — that more than 200 first-year students had not achieved the 30-credit hour threshold. The trend didn’t improve for upperclassmen; the number of students who had not completed the additional 30 hours each year roughly doubled for each grade level, he said.

The university was retaining about 63% of students year-to-year, Allison said, and its graduation rate ranked last in the UNC System.

“It was jaw-dropping,” Allison said Wednesday.

With just about a month before the academic year ended, Allison and leaders on his team worked to create a potential solution. Using pandemic relief funds, the university offered its first iteration of free summer school.

More than 3,600 students — over half of all students enrolled at the university at the time — participated in the first summer. Summer school enrollment remained roughly the same in 2022, but saw a significant increase of 17% last summer. And even more students are enrolled this summer.

The university’s retention rate rose to almost 78% last year, Allison said — about equal to the national average. And university leaders anticipate the rate will be more than 80% come the fall semester.

“We really are seeing a culture change here,” Allison said.

Using summer school to catch up or graduate early

The summer school program’s draw is twofold, Allison noted.

While the university would like students to take 15 credit hours per semester to reach the 30-hour milestone each year, Allison noted that isn’t always possible for students who may have additional responsibilities, such as work, outside of school. About half of the university’s students are nontraditional, adult learners who did not enter college immediately after high school.

If a student instead takes 12 hours in a semester — the minimum amount generally needed to be considered a full-time student and receive financial aid — allowing them to take additional courses in the summer keeps them on-track to reach the 30-hour threshold.

Conversely, students who are able to complete 15 hours each semester can choose to participate in summer school to complete additional hours and graduate in less than four years.

“It’s one thing to keep students on track. But we have a fair number of students that are actually ahead of schedule, that they will be getting their four-year degree in less than four years,” Allison said. “That’s more money in their pocket that they don’t have to spend.”

Allison said that the university’s provost and academic affairs staff work each summer to tailor the classes offered in summer school to the students who are enrolled, ensuring the offerings are relevant to their studies and majors.

“Each year has its own unique case because we also are taking inventory of the classes necessary for that student to advance,” Allison said.

Deborah Cathcart, a sophomore at Fayetteville State University, speaks at an event announcing historic summer school enrollment and a $750,000 donation to support the initiative, Wednesday, June 19, 2024.
Deborah Cathcart, a sophomore at Fayetteville State University, speaks at an event announcing historic summer school enrollment and a $750,000 donation to support the initiative, Wednesday, June 19, 2024.

Deborah Cathcart, a sophomore at the university majoring in criminal justice, spoke at a campus event Wednesday announcing the new $750,000 donation for the program. She said summer school has “profoundly influenced” her academic progress at the university and put her “on a smoother path to timely graduation.”

“By allowing me to take courses during the summer, I have managed to alleviate the heavy load of my regular semesters,” Cathcart said. “This has not only enabled me to focus better on each subject, but it has also given me the chance to delve deeper into the course material without the typical academic-year pressures.”

Financial benefits of summer school

Of course, another major draw of the summer-school program is that it’s offered free-of-charge.

As a school that draws the majority of its students from the state’s most economically distressed counties, as defined by the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s tier-ranking system, the university has made concerted efforts in recent years to make the cost of attendance as affordable as possible. The university is one of four colleges in the UNC System that offer significantly reduced tuition for students through the NC Promise Tuition Plan. In-state students pay $1,000 per year for tuition, while out-of-state students pay $5,000 per year. Members of the military can also receive assistance with tuition.

In addition to receiving free tuition in the summer, select students can also receive free on-campus housing and meals. That’s key, Allison said, given that financial needs are often a top reason students — specifically at Fayetteville State and in higher education more broadly — drop out.

“From a financial perspective, the benefits of summer school has been amazing,” Cathcart said. “As a student, managing expenses is always a challenge.”

The university is able to offer the program at no cost to students through a mix of private funds, such as the donation announced Wednesday, and public money from the state. The funds also help support faculty pay during the summer, Allison said. Including Wednesday’s gift, the university has received a total of $3.1 million in private donations to support the program.

Fayetteville State was one of eight schools in the UNC System to receive funds in the state budget last year to support “completion assistance grants,” which allows the universities to provide students at-risk of dropping out with grants to help them address financial shortfalls that are likely to impact their progress to graduation. The program was funded with $2 million in one-time funds for both the current and upcoming fiscal years, meaning each school received $250,000.

The UNC System requested an additional $8.5 million in recurring funds for the program for the upcoming fiscal year.

Allison said additional state funding for the completion grants would “fold in very nicely” at Fayetteville State, but the university won’t “rest on our laurels.”

“I’m committed as a leader here — and we’re good for the next few years here — to continue to make sure that we have the resources we need in order for us to sustain this program,” Allison said. “It has really been a lifeline for many of these students, and the way forward for this institution.”