They gathered in maroon caps and gowns at North Carolina Central’s historic Greek Bowl at the center of campus, draping arms around one another beneath the blue sky of a May day in Durham. The soon-to-be graduates squinted in the sun as they circled up for selfies.
The letters on the gray sashes around the necks of three dozen young men and women made clear who they were: STUDENT-ATHLETE. But for emphasis, the group also peppered their photos with props — a basketball, a football, a tennis racket and a softball mitt. Even a javelin.
Kia Robinson, life skills coordinator for the athletics department, herded them into groupings. Student-athletes who are children of North Carolina Central grads in one photo. International student-athletes in another. Graduating football players in the next.
With one group, Robinson instructed: “Hold up a one for first generation!”
Jaquell Taylor, a quiet football player in the back row, extended the index finger of his right hand, the one adorned with two conference championship rings. He wears them only on special occasions and plans to display them one day in his home. “I’ll be able to share them with my family and maybe my kids someday,” Taylor says.
He wasn’t the only one there thinking about the future. Minutes earlier at the student-athlete graduation celebration, an assistant athletics director had singled out the first-generation college graduates — including Taylor, a finance major and free safety on the football team.
“Congratulations to the line you have started in your families,” Kwadjo Steele, who oversees academic support services for athletics, told them. “We are proud of you for that. It’s no small feat to be able to be the first at anything, and you will always be able to say you were first.
“We are glad you took that journey with us.”
Taylor’s journey began four years ago this summer, when he was among 26 incoming students who arrived at the historically black university the summer before their first semester for North Carolina Central’s Preparing to Soar program. They represented the athletics department’s first class of summer bridge students. To choose college athletes for the program, the department scanned the rosters and selected incoming students who had the potential to excel in college — but also the potential to falter and never finish.
Some had high school grade-point averages or standardized test scores lower than the university average. Some came from high schools with less rigorous academic programs, and administrators feared they would be intimidated by college work. Some, like Taylor, were trying to become the first college graduates in their families.
“They’re all coming together from different kinds of areas — some urban, some rural,” Steele says. “They’re away from home for the first time. There’s a lot of things working against them.”
That is why North Carolina Central has committed itself to summer bridge — it just might work for those students.
Measuring the impact of a bridge program can be frustrating. The same students who start college with a big hill to climb can be the ones most likely to be diverted by calamities that a head start on school can’t foresee or forestall.
But there’s no arguing with this number: Four years after the advent of summer bridge for North Carolina Central athletics, 50% of the first participants are on pace to graduate in five years or less, a rate higher than the school’s general student body.
Assistant Athletics Director Kwadjo Steele congratulates Taylor and his classmates.
Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, Taylor was a chubby kid whose aunt nicknamed him “Fat Man.” His mom’s manager at Food Lion was a Pop Warner coach, and when he looked at 10-year-old Taylor, he saw a football player. “He took me under his arms,” Taylor recalls, “and I fell in love with football.”
That love translated into success in the sport. As a high school sophomore, Taylor had five interceptions in three games, and college football programs began to take notice. “I started realizing I really could go to college with football if I kept it up,” he says. “I knew it would be challenging for my parents to pay my way through college, so I had to find a way to relieve stress on my parents and find a way.”
Taylor even had an idea of what he would study. Numbers came easily to him, and at home he tutored his younger brother and sister in math. He thought a career in engineering or accounting might suit him. Still, college wasn’t a path many in his family had explored. He was born when his mom was 17; she graduated from high school a month later. He was raised partly by his stepdad, who had attended Shaw, another North Carolina historically black university, but left without a degree and now runs a catering company.
And a generation ago, Taylor’s father left school before attending his first college class. He, too, had been a high school sophomore when college coaches began paying attention. “I started getting noticed,” says Taylor’s dad, Joseph Hinton. “I didn’t know I was that good until they started to come see me.”
Hinton received a football scholarship to Mississippi State in 1997. But when he got to campus, more than 700 miles away from his Kenly, North Carolina, home, he was timid. Getting to know his teammates was hard, he says, and the prospect of college studies was daunting.
“It was a different world for me,” Hinton says. “I went over there and changed time zones, and I’d never been out of the state in my life. I’d never been away from my family like that — and I was a mama’s boy, too.”
He flew home before classes started and never returned to college. Instead, Hinton landed at his older brother’s construction company: Now 41, he still works there today. “I wanted to go to school; I wanted to play sports,” says Hinton, now a father of four. “My son did everything I wanted to do when I was coming up. I always tried to instill in him: ‘Don’t be afraid of change.’”
Taylor’s college journey, his family hoped, would be less jarring. The school that offered him a full scholarship sat less than an hour’s drive from Taylor’s high school in Durham, North Carolina.
“I was so excited — I mean, a full ride. You cannot beat that at all,” says Taylor’s mother, Lakeisha Taylor Timmons. “When we went for the visit, I was really impressed. It was family-oriented and felt like a good fit for Jaquell. You felt like they would take the best care of him.”
Many student-athletes were among those recognized at a student-athlete graduation celebration in May.
That care started the summer after Taylor graduated from high school when he was invited to North Carolina Central’s summer bridge program for student-athletes.
The term “summer bridge” means something different at nearly every school. It affords some student-athletes a chance to collect a few credit hours before the first intense semester of college begins. Others may benefit from the opportunity to build friendships and feel comfortable in a new environment, while coming to understand the importance of basics like a course syllabus or professors’ office hours.
The road to summer bridge programs was paved by the work of a Division I working group convened in the late 1990s to improve college basketball players’ academic experience. Bridge programs, as they came to be known, were among the landmark proposals adopted in April 2000 by the Division I Board of Directors. The legislation allowed schools to provide financial aid to entering men’s and women’s basketball players for up to six credits during the summer before their first fall on campus.
The results were encouraging: According to a 2002 NCAA research survey of participating schools, the biggest beneficiaries of the academic head start were students with high school core-course GPAs of 2.75 or lower. African American men who participated in the program ended their first year of college with 0.15 GPA units more than the average African American male student-athlete who did not participate in summer bridge. Plus, the programs seemed to buoy student-athletes’ academics throughout the year.
“The credit hours that participants earned that summer seemed to encourage participants to maintain that pace,” Tom Paskus, then an NCAA researcher and an assistant professor at Denver, said at the time. Paskus is now the principal research scientist for the NCAA.
Just as important, 98% of participating college athletes said they would recommend the program to other incoming students.
Given the positive reception, the legislation was expanded to include student-athletes in any sport. In Division I, financial aid for summer classes before a student-athlete’s first fall term was allowed for all sports beginning in 2003.
Because the programs are so loosely defined, the NCAA does not have data on how many schools host them, but the most recent data show about 25% of incoming Division I student-athletes enroll in summer classes before their first term. Schools with more resources might invite all incoming student-athletes to campus for the program; others select incoming college athletes who may need more help with the adjustment or are on teams with traditionally low GPAs or graduation rates.
Since summer bridge was opened to student-athletes from all sports, the NCAA Graduation Success Rate has climbed from 76% to 88%. That’s not to say summer bridge programs led to more graduates in Division I.
“We can’t say there’s a causation,” Paskus says. “But we can say there’s a jump-start on your credit hours. It accelerates your graduation track. It gives you that cushion.”
Something else was apparent about bridge programs from the beginning, too. According to the same 2002 survey, among the Division I schools that chose not to provide bridge programs for first-year students, 97% attributed their lack of participation to a lack of funding.
Since 2012, qualifying schools have been able to receive summer bridge program funding through the NCAA Accelerating Academic Success Program. The program gives grants to low-resource Division I schools to help them meet the division’s educational requirements. More than $2 million in AASP funding has been used for summer bridge programs, including a three-year grant that helped North Carolina Central athletics get its program off the ground.
Summer bridge administrators say the programs help create a culture that keeps incoming students more attached to their school, but the impact can be difficult to quantify. “It’s hard finding the hard data that has a link between summer bridge and graduation,” says William R. Moultrie, interim dean of North Carolina Central’s University College. “It’s a little difficult because you deal with a number of factors that impede success or contribute to success. A lot of the information we have about the impact is the stories that we hear from the students. We don’t necessarily have numbers and variables; it’s very anecdotal.”
Those anecdotes abound. The last two chancellors at North Carolina Central have set a 50% graduation rate as an aspirational goal the school has not yet achieved; meanwhile, the athletics department is on pace to meet that goal with its first cohort of summer bridge students.
Of the 26 student-athletes selected for the first cohort, five have left school — some with promises that they would find a way to finish their degrees later, some with no plans for college. Eight other students, all in good academic standing, transferred to other universities.
This spring, North Carolina Central celebrated the other 13. Four graduated in three years. Two graduated in three and a half. Today four of them are in graduate school. One is at the Dallas Police Department Academy and studying for the FBI entrance exam. One is making plans to play professional volleyball in Europe before she begins a career in law enforcement.
Two remain undergraduate students at the school and are on track to finish within five years.
And five, like Taylor, graduated in May, at the four-year mark — right on time.
At a graduation celebration, Athletics Director Ingrid Wicker McCree adjusts Taylor’s sash.
In May, a week after the student-athlete graduation celebration where he held his index finger aloft and posed for a photo, Taylor and his classmates walked across the stage at the university commencement ceremony at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium. It was the same place where Taylor had started every game in a senior season that included an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. Once again, he wore his two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship rings to mark the occasion.
His dad calls that day at North Carolina Central the proudest of his life. “I saw a lot of black men walking across that stage, and I thought, ‘The future is bright,’” Hinton says. “Just to see your kid do it, to go all the way.
“Anybody can start out,” Hinton continues. “But if you finish, that’s the big thing.”
Three weeks after commencement, Taylor landed his first position in banking: an internship at Coastal Credit Union. Two weeks after that he got a job offer, too, and started his first full-time position — as a management trainee at Enterprise Rent-a-Car.
He remains interested in banking but also could see himself pursuing more opportunities at Enterprise, perhaps leaning on his lifelong skill with numbers to work in the company’s accounting and finance department. So his supervisors have helped him create a schedule that gives him room to complete his internship even while embarking on a full-time job.
“I’ve always wanted to finish,” Taylor says, “everything I start.”