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Colorado Mountain College's Breckenridge campus. The popular tourist area has been economically devastated by the pandemic.

Wikimedia/natuza Olen

A buy one, get one free sign is something people expect to see in a suburban mall. Not so much at a community college.

But such deals and discounts are popping up more and more as colleges strive to address issues of equity -- and enrollment -- caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Most people are suffering economically," said Mary Graham, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. "So let’s offer them a really great deal that they can’t pass up to finish their education."

Two-year institutions across the country are offering discounts and deals, waiving fees, and even offering free summer tuition, on top of other programs meant to help students.

Mississippi Gulf Coast is offering a buy one, get one free deal on summer courses for current and former students, as well as for residents of the college's district.

The college was developing a strategic plan focused on completion when COVID-19 hit. Because of the pandemic, students are facing severe disruptions that could put their education at risk, Graham said. Local young adults who traveled to other institutions for college were also returning to live with their families in the area due to the pandemic and have nothing to do.

The staff's solution addressed two issues: how to keep students enrolled despite the large disruptions, and how to counteract a potential enrollment slump, Graham said.

It seems to have worked. The first day enrollment opened, more than 800 people signed up, Graham said, which is more than usual.

But some question whether tuition price is the biggest issue for community college students.

"For community college leadership, I think there are perhaps some things that might better respond to the needs of students," said Rick Staisloff, founder and senior partner at rpkGROUP, a higher education consulting firm.

Instead, institutions could increase flexibility around when and how students pay, and invest extra funds into improving the learning environment and addressing equity issues, he said.

"To me, we want to keep the value proposition for higher education front and center always," he said. "[Special deals] I don’t think speak to the kind of value proposition that higher education wants to put out there."

Mercer County Community College in New Jersey is offering 20 percent off its summer courses, but it's not using federal funding to do so.

"We realize our students are hurting, they’re hurting badly," said Jianping Wang, president of the college. "We also realize that when we come out of this health crisis, our workforce will require our students’ participation in order for our economy to recover and recover fast. If our students put their education on hold, they will not be able to participate in the workforce when the time comes."

The funds for the discount will come from the college's budget and not from funds in the CARES Act, Wang said. The federal funding will go toward emergency aid for students and other programs that address issues beyond tuition. While it was not easy to make this decision during an economic crisis when institutions are looking to furloughs and layoffs to balance budgets, Wang said the college's officials are trying to think for the long term.

"We’ve been saving responsibly for the past five years for a rainy day. This is not just a rainy day. This is a pouring day," she said. "The college is prepared to use all our resources to help our students and our communities get out of it."

Josh Wyner, vice president of the Aspen Institute, thinks the discounts make sense.

Community colleges often rely on high schools and community organizations to help with their marketing and get students enrolled in programs, he said. While those places are closed, they're likely struggling to get information to potential students.

"I don’t think it’s unreasonable for community colleges to be getting messages out there to get people to think about college when reliable intermediaries are shut down," Wyner said, pointing out that for-profit institutions use similar tactics.

"If you’re a community college and the choice somebody is going to have is not going college, going to a for-profit or going to a community college, then getting the word out is important," he said.

The hope is that students will be drawn to enroll because of the special deal and then they'll become engaged and want to continue their education. If the institutions are delivering on that with high-quality instruction and pathways to careers, it's a great idea, Wyner said.

Summer courses could also help students catch up on their developmental education courses, said Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at the Education Trust.

Jones isn't surprised that colleges are offering deals and discounts.

"Colleges are right to be worried their students might not return," she said, citing research from University of Southern California and Civis Analytics that found 65 percent of students' college plans have changed due to COVID-19. "It’s important for them and for higher education that there’s some sort of path for them to stay engaged."

Community colleges are especially susceptible to financial constraints, she said, because they have historically served the most vulnerable students with the fewest resources.

Institutions must ensure they don't lose sight of their missions, though, she said.

"Colleges need to be really careful that it’s about more than money," Jones said. "Students aren’t dollars. What they do over the summer shouldn’t be of lower quality."

At Colorado Mountain College, trustees voted to waive summer tuition and fees for residents. The college relies on its status as a special taxing district in the mountain areas of Colorado, where it's surrounded by ski resorts and tourist-oriented businesses that have now shut down due to the pandemic.

In Eagle County, where the college is located, unemployment had risen to 50 percent by mid-April, according to Chris Romer, president and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership as well as a member of the college's board. A month earlier, unemployment had been under 2 percent.

Romer is hopeful the summer program will help retain students and tourism workers, so that businesses can start up again once the pandemic passes.

"We have to hope that we come out of this and some of that will be buffered," said Carrie Besnette Hauser, president and CEO of the college. "This is like steel shutting down in Pittsburgh, or banking in New York. This is fundamental for these communities."

The college doesn't have to chase enrollment, Hauser said, because of its funding model. But it is hoping to help its community get back on its feet once this is over.

"We do want our local residents and our businesses to know that we’re supporting them," she said. "They have a property tax line that says, 'Colorado Mountain College,' and we want to give back."

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