Pandemic Forces Summer Classes to Move Online

Colleges announce shifts to their summer sessions and consider tuition discounts or fee waivers in some cases.

April 10, 2020
 
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A flurry of colleges has made the formal, if inevitable, announcements in the last 10 days that summer sessions -- or at least the first scheduled sessions for those that have multiple summer start dates -- will be online-only due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For colleges that already had extensive online summer course offerings, the transition may be relatively smooth, but those that didn’t may face questions about quality and tuition pricing from skeptical students.

Lucie Lapovsky, principal at Lapovsky Consulting and a former college president, said private college leaders she talks with are discussing incentives such as two-for-one course pricing or reduced tuition.

“When I’ve talked to students, they’re saying, ‘If I’m going to be online, I don’t need to pay the price of my institution,’” she said. “I think you will see shopping, so I think for the more expensive schools you’re going to see discounting or deals, so to speak.”

Various colleges have already announced discounts. Florida Gateway College, a community college, is letting current students enroll in two three-credit online summer courses for the price of one. Winthrop University, a public university in South Carolina, cut tuition for summer classes by 12 percent, which comes on top of an already 20 percent lower in-state tuition rate for summer classes compared to those offered in the spring and fall. American University, a relatively pricey private university in Washington, D.C., is offering a 10 percent discount on summer classes, which the university says translates into about $1,000 in savings on an average summer schedule of two courses.

“With there likely being few options for college students in the summer in the way of internships, summer jobs, etc., we hope this provides an avenue for American University’s students to stay on track with meeting their goals,” American said in a press release.

Carla Hickman, vice president for research for the enrollment management consulting firm EAB, noted that many colleges have long had tuition discount structures in place -- unrelated to COVID-19 -- to incentivize students to enroll for a robust course load in the summer. She said tuition pricing for online courses varies. Some colleges actually charge more for online classes than for in-person classes. In many cases colleges charge a separate technology fee for online course enrollments. Hickman said many colleges are waiving these technology fees through the summer, but that college leaders she’s spoken with don’t feel they can continue to offer those waivers next fall if classes continue to be offered remotely.

Hickman said colleges might consider offering a more limited catalog of summer classes online and “Use the summer as a laboratory to get a better-designed online learning experience together.”

“The patience that our students and faculty have had with courses that are not the ideal online learning experience, I don’t think that’s going to extend into the fall -- so people should use the summer to test things out” in case periods of remote instruction are necessary come autumn.

Bob Atkins, CEO of the higher education consulting firm Gray Associates, echoed the less-is-more advice.

“Cut it down, teach it well, run extra sections of the courses that you keep, but the trick here is to lower costs at the same time you’re driving the revenue you need,” he said. “Having a thousand course offerings over the summer is probably not the way to do that. Having more sections of the courses people have to take to finish their major probably makes sense.”

Atkins recommended caution about tuition price discounts for the summer. “I’d be really thoughtful about taking price down and ending up in a place where you make your financials worse. They have suffered a pretty heavy hit already,” he said.

At some colleges, the shift online for the summer session will not be a dramatic one. For example, at Ball State University in Indiana, which announced this week that all its summer classes would be online, about three-quarters of its summer classes are already offered online, and the transition will affect the other 25 percent.

For other universities, the transition to an online-only summer session will represent a more marked change. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state originally expected to have between 1,300 and 1,400 students on campus for summer courses. Most of these students would have been rising juniors participating in the mandatory Arch program, which requires students to spend the summer after their sophomore year on campus taking junior-level courses and preparing to spend either the upcoming fall or spring semester off-campus either studying abroad or at another U.S. institution, participating in an internship or co-op experience, engaging in research or a civic engagement project, or designing their own study or entrepreneurship project.

RPI has decided to keep the Arch session mandatory, even though it’s being moved online due to coronavirus concerns. The tuition rate has not changed. RPI administrators said its student and academic support services will be fully operational to support students studying remotely.

“It's part of our regular academic calendar,” Prabhat Hajela, RPI's provost, said of the decision to keep the Arch session mandatory. “We are staying true to our academic calendar to make sure that our students progress in a satisfactory manner to make sure that they are where they need to be academically to be prepared to go on to graduate school or their professional careers.”

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