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The Summer Swarm

June 9, 2009

In a down economy, people go back to college, potentially a silver lining in the dark cloud for postsecondary institutions that, like every other industry, are struggling financially. Because of their career orientation, community colleges and for-profit institutions are the natural beneficiaries of this uptick. But many four-year institutions appear to be benefiting, too, though they're having to work harder -- and in many cases altering policies and marketing approaches to attract students and help them pay to enroll. The early results look generally positive.

“What I’ve heard is typically when there is a downturn in the economy, people go back to school,” said Allyson Morris, president of the North American Association of Summer Sessions and coordinator of summer sessions at Regis University. “But there is so much competition now.… I’m hearing some colleagues are very pleased because they have increased enrollments, some are down in enrollment, some are up in student enrollment among their own students but are down in international student enrollments.”

Though it will likely take some reflection once the summer is over to determine which factors most affected students’ decisions about summer courses, Morris said, some early predictions are holding true. Some community colleges are reporting increases in this summer's numbers over last summer's of more than ten percent -- Grand Rapids Community College, in Michigan, and Utah's Salt Lake Community College to name just two -- while others are up even more. Horry-Georgetown Technical College, in South Carolina, for example, is up 22 percent in enrollment this summer over last year.

Commercial colleges are doing well this summer, too. Both DeVry University and the University of Phoenix are reporting significant growth this spring compared to last year at this time, and are predicting continued growth into the summer months.

“University of Phoenix is structured to respond to market forces more nimbly than conventional schools -- a factor of critical importance during the current economic downturn,” said Sara Jones, a spokeswoman for Phoenix. “We continually monitor the job market, with a particular eye toward any fast-growing occupation areas or sectors facing resource shortages, and attune our curriculum accordingly.”

But the jump in numbers at community colleges and for-profits has not been completely at the expense of four-year college summer enrollment. Many public and private four-year colleges are reporting increases in headcount on their campuses this summer, with many admissions officials attributing the spike to both poor summer job prospects and a desire on students’ part to squeeze in all the credits they can in order to minimize their billable college semesters down the road.

To accommodate the influx and cater to students in an economic pinch, some colleges are tailoring summer policies and reporting early positive results.

Rutgers University, in New Jersey, is one of many institutions to report jumps in summer enrollment -- the numbers are not all in yet, but as compared to this time last year, the summer headcount at the university's main campus in New Brunswick is up by about 7 percent. Recognizing the likelihood that students are choosing to spend the summer on campus for financial reasons, Elizabeth Hough, director of summer sessions and special projects at the New Brunswick campus, said that Rutgers has been prudent about trying to help ease students’ economic strain.

This year, for the first time, Rutgers is offering a staggered payment plan option to its summer students, allowing them to pay their fees in installments over as few as two and as many as five months. The monthly payment plan comes with a one-time $50 start-up fee, but since no interest accrues, Hough said students stand to spend less money that way than if they had to charge their bills to a credit card.

Just how many students were influenced by the payment plan offer -- and how many will take advantage of it -- is tough to quantify now, Hough said. But, at least anecdotally, she said the plan “has been met with pleasure and relief for the most part.” Montclair State University, another public institution in New Jersey, also introduced a staggered payment plan option this summer. Students can pay in two or three installments instead of one lump sum.

Rutgers also funded $500 scholarships for 100 summer students this year, which were divvied among financially eligible students based on merit. For high school students participating in summer programs at Rutgers, the university is funding scholarships for 30 percent of tuition for students with a grade point average of at least 3.0 and a letter of recommendation from a guidance counselor.

Again, Hough was hesitant to speculate about how much the college’s financial incentives played a role in students’ decisions to enroll this summer, but she said she is happy with the numbers. Undergraduate summer enrollment is up, and the number of high school students enrolling in pre-college programs at Rutgers is holding steady.

Also recognizing some students’ need for additional financial help this year -- and in light of an increased demand for summer courses -- Arizona State University has decided to award more aid than in past summers. Craig Fennell, director of financial aid at Arizona State, said final numbers are not available as the college continues to award aid.

“We anticipated this late last fall as the economy turned down and allowed for more aid funding to be made available for summer,” Fennell said in an e-mail. “We usually plan for some summer funding but decided to plan for a bit more this year.”

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln is also looking at an increase in headcount of more than 4 percent for its 2009 summer classes, which Director of Summer Sessions Paul Savory said is probably attributable to economic factors. After about four consecutive years of decline in summer enrollment, Savory said the university this year is in a particularly strong position to capitalize on student interest in summer programs.

To that end, Nebraska is offering its students a 20 percent discount on summer study abroad programs this year in hopes of bolstering enrollment despite steep room and board rates for foreign study. While students are flocking to summer classes at the Lincoln campus, Savory said he was initially nervous that study abroad numbers would drop off this year because of the economy.

“I think it’s helped with the recruitment, definitely,” Savory said of the 20-percent fee reduction. “When you look at the overall cost of these trips it doesn’t add up to a whole lot, but it’s helping students make that decision.”

The tuition break will amount to about $110 for in-state students taking a three-credit course abroad, and more than $300 for out-of-state students -- admittedly, Savory said, a relatively small discount compared to the $2,500 in airfare and lodging expenses students will face for their trips. Still, Savory is optimistic that 2009 enrollment will match the headcount from last summer, when the University of Nebraska sent more than 300 students abroad for summer programs.

“We’re trying to expand internationally, and we’re using the discount to help that out,” Savory said. The tuition break benefits cash-strapped students, and the escalated interest in finding an alternative to summer employment helps the college’s international efforts, he said.

Finishing Faster

Other colleges are marketing their summer courses as an economical means for students to complete necessary degree requirements. Rollins College, a private college in Florida, is debuting an early summer program this year designed as a way for students to speed along toward graduation. According to Ann Marie Varga, assistant vice president of public relations, about 100 students are enrolled in “Maymester” -- the intensive three-week summer session -- across seven different course offerings.

The University of Pennsylvania is also catering this summer to students who need to fit in degree requirements while also trying to tighten their belts. One place they’ve made adjustments is with the online curriculum.

“We expanded from two or three to eight summer sessions we’re offering online,” Nora Lewis, director of enrollment management at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “[The expansion] was based on what we were hearing from students and knowing that people have reduced budgets. They’ve proven to be quite popular.”

Although Penn’s summer enrollment spike mostly consisted of resident undergraduates -- up about 9 percent -- Lewis said the addition of online courses is also suited for non-traditional summer students, or undergrads who choose to live at home for the summer: “This way they can still have the Penn experience without traveling to Philadelphia.”

Montclair State saw similar benefits to expanding online offerings; the New Jersey college tripled its count of online courses this summer.

Some colleges that cater to international students from overseas universities in the summers are changing their messages, too. While summer enrollment among University of California at Berkeley students is up this year, the college is seeing a dip in its numbers of visiting international students and is doing some extra marketing to that audience.

The University of Mississippi is also trying to “cast a larger net” this year, according to Jason Wilkins, director of pre-college programs. Mississippi accepted its first international students from Europe last year with a group from Anatolia College in Greece, and this year will be adding students from Venezuela and Ecuador, mostly in a program for high-achieving high school students taking college courses.

 

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