Is Summer Selling?

To try to increase enrollment during the summer -- to boost graduation rates and revenue -- some colleges are discounting tuition and offering other perks. In most cases, the strategy has shown little payoff.

June 20, 2013
New students this spring at Indiana's Kokomo campus

Summer school is on sale at Montclair State University, where students at the New Jersey public institution can take classes for up to 17 percent off the regular tuition price, housing fees are reduced, and parking is free.

In an effort to increase enrollment during the summer, the university is following in the footsteps of other colleges that offer tuition reductions, among other bonuses.

But the experience of some other institutions suggests that, despite the perks, many students still are not buying.

Last summer, Indiana University offered in-state students a 25 percent summer tuition discount at each of its eight campuses statewide. At IU Bloomington -- the university’s main campus -- enrollment rose about 1 percent during that first summer. Summer tuition was discounted again in 2013, but enrollment numbers for the first session are almost exactly the same as last year, campus officials said last week.

The discount was an effort to decrease student debt and to boost the university’s four-year graduation rate, said Mark Land, an Indiana spokesman. “That extra year becomes a real driver of student debt,” Land said.

There were varied summer 2013 enrollments at Indiana’s regional campuses. At the Kokomo campus, enrollment was up 13 percent over last summer; it rose 9 percent at Richmond. The South Bend campus had a 9 percent drop, while summer enrollment at Gary fell 7 percent, according to The Herald-Times.

The variation could be attributed to a number of factors, Land said. Enrollment numbers at some regional campuses are “soft” during all semesters, Land said. And summer enrollment may have risen at the other campuses because they cater to nontraditional students who live close by and may be used to attending college while working.

As an in-state rising senior who is double majoring at Indiana, Sidney Fletcher is taking a chemistry class on campus during the summer so he can stay on track with his dual-degree requirements.

But he does not think the summer tuition discount Indiana is offering is “enough” to significantly make a difference in a student’s long-term college costs.

“It’s too limited of a discount and too limited to a specific population of students,” Fletcher said, adding that the discount is “missing the people who need it most,” since some students need to work full-time during the summer to pay for college.

A New Tactic

This summer is the first that Montclair State will offer its tuition discounts and other benefits.

In 2011 the federal government eliminated year-round Pell Grants, which allowed low-income students to receive two grants in one year to help pay for summer classes. During the three years that year-round Pell Grants did exist, Montclair State and other colleges around the country saw a boost in enrollment during the summer, said Jamieson Bilella, who directs summer sessions at Montclair State and is president of the North American Association of Summer Sessions. When Congress ended the short-lived program in 2011, summer enrollment numbers decreased, he said. It is still too soon to tell if the summer tuition discounts have affected enrollment at Montclair State this year, since students can continue to register for classes throughout the summer, said Bilella.

“But I can say that things are trending positively,” Bilella said.

He said he suspects that even if summer enrollment numbers are staying flat, tuition discounts are helping universities ensure that numbers do not decrease even further.

“Some people were very skeptical that we were [offering discounts]. But the thing is, if you don’t try these things, how much worse would things have been,” Bilella said.

At Indiana, which has a long history of offering summer classes, students have raised concern about the lack of financial aid in the summer, and many cited it as their reasoning for not taking classes, Land said.

However, he said, Indiana’s summer tuition discount was not put into place as a direct response to the elimination of year-round Pell Grants or to try to increase diminishing enrollment numbers. “Summer enrollment always tends to be pretty stable,” Land said. “This was just an attempt to save students more money.”

Colleges are realizing that pricing is only one component in a student’s decision of whether or not to take classes year-round.

 “There’s a lot that goes into it,” Indiana’s Land said. “Price is not a determining factor.”

Bilella said that “running the right classes at the right time” is of extreme importance when it comes to making summer classes an attractive option for students, which is something Montclair State consciously thought about.

During the summer, Montclair offers more than 900 class sections, and it has increased its selection of online courses, which are becoming more and more popular.

Fletcher said Indiana could do more to offer a “wider variety of classes,” since he noticed there are only “core” courses offered in each of his departments.

Baylor University is beginning to “think about summer in a different way,” by creating a group that will develop strategies for new academic summer programs, said a university spokeswoman, Lori Fogleman.

When Baylor instituted a flat-rate tuition structure in 2002, it also discounted summer credit hours by 25 percent. But summer enrollment rates have remained flat since then, Fogleman said. She said the university’s main challenge is having enough summer classes that fit students’ needs and increasing student activities during the summer.

“We’ll hopefully increase student life programming to where summer may look a little more like a fall and a spring semester on campus,” Fogleman said.

For the fifth year, Centenary College in New Jersey is offering free housing for students who take at least two summer courses during the first summer session. After the college first implemented the discount in 2009, summer enrollment increased, but only slightly. About 25 students who "otherwise could not have stayed on campus during the summer" took advantage of the free housing, said Diane Finnan, Centenary’s senior vice president of college relations. That number has stayed steady in the years since, Finnan said.

"It hasn’t really taken off tremendously,” she said. “It’s difficult to compete with community colleges.”

The University of Iowa went a step further than simply offering discounts when it decided this year that it was going to give away summer sessions -- free.

In mid-March, university officials at Iowa announced that any in-state undergraduate who enrolled as a first-year student during or after summer 2013 would receive a scholarship for one full summer course load, once he or she completes at least 24 credit hours. Out-of-state students will pay an in-state price during the summer, said Iowa's director of admissions, Michael Barron. He said the university enrolls between 11,000 and 12,000 students each year, and adding the summer scholarship was not a way to boost summer enrollment or first-year commitments.

"We know some students may not want to do it, but we fully expect that there will be some students that will want to use this as a way to accelerate or enrich their program," Barron said. "This really was our approach to student success and helping students keep on track to four-year graduation."

Other universities around the country that are offering summer discounts include:

  • Pittsburgh's Duquesne University is offering a 25 percent discount for undergraduates in six of its 10 schools of study.
  • Lewis University in Illinois is offering up to a 21 percent discount for students who take two summer courses.
  • Pennsylvania College of Technology is discounting summer first-level courses by 25 percent.
  • The University of Vermont is offering a 15 percent tuition discount.
  • Stockton College in New Jersey is discounting more than $75 per credit, and reducing the price of housing by 20 percent.

Bilella said in order to attract students for the summer, universities need to be sensitive to curriculum demand by offering classes students “want to take,” including online courses, and convincing faculty that summer education is “an important component” — all things he said Montclair State is trying to accomplish.

“It’s definitely a multidimensional problem,” he said.

Fletcher is skeptical. He knows the student debt crisis is one without “simple solutions.” But, he said, if Indiana’s goal is to make college more affordable in general, then focusing on summer classes is not helpful enough.

“I think this is the administration’s attempt at an easy answer,” Fletcher said.


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