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California State University, Fresno, officials say a systemwide initiative to help students get back on track for graduation is already paying off.

California State University, Fresno

After two years of pandemic-related unpredictability and financial uncertainty, college and university administrators are cautiously optimistic about summer enrollment prospects this year. While many administrators are hesitant to predict whether enrollment will rise or fall this summer, institutions that offer free and reduced tuition are seeing steady increases so far.

With start times and lengths of summer sessions varying among two-year and four-year institutions—some have already begun, while others are not due to start until early June—many colleges are attributing the increases to full or partial tuition waivers.

California State University, Fresno, for example, reported a 6.9 percent rise in enrollment in its summer sessions, the fifth straight year that enrollment has gone up, with the first of its two summer sessions starting June 13. “And it’s still going up,” said Scott Moore, dean of Fresno State’s division of continuing and global education.

Moore attributes the increased enrollment to the financial incentives offered; the summer classes are either free or discounted depending on financial need. The lower costs are the result of the college’s Provost Graduation Initiative Grant, which was created in 2016 to help enrolled students in good academic standing who are close to graduating finish their studies. The normal tuition for summer classes is $331 per unit, or $993 for a three-unit course.

The CSU system, which is made up of 23 campuses with a total enrollment of 477,000, launched Graduation Initiative 2025 in 2015. The goal of the initiative is to increase graduation rates over all and to close the graduation rate gap between white students and students of color, those from low-income backgrounds and those who are first in their families to attend college. One of the priorities of the program is to increase the use of the summer sessions to catch up or stay on track for graduation.

The program provides dedicated funding for each campus to use at its discretion “to expand summer and intersession availability,” according to a spokesperson for the CSU system. Campuses can use the funds for summer course fee waivers, grants or scholarships.

“The campuses that take summer seriously and are intentional about it and take specific efforts to close these equity gaps—they’re really moving the dial,” Moore said. He added that since the start of the initiative, Fresno State has decreased the graduation rate gap between white students and underrepresented students to 1.8 percent. The graduation rate for low-income students has now risen above the rate for students who are not from low-income backgrounds, he said.

California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, also in the CSU system, allows all its enrolled undergraduates to take up to two summer courses for free every year. Tuition for summer courses at Cal Poly Humboldt this year is $289 per unit, or $1,156 per class. The university offered 72 classes during the summer of 2020, and 1,027 students enrolled. It is offering 118 courses this year, and 2,844 students had enrolled as of May 18.

Some courses have such long waiting lists that Cal Poly Humboldt officials are considering adding more course offerings this summer, said Cyril Oberlander, interim dean of the College of Extended Education and Global Engagement.

Funding from the CSU initiative is paying for the summer tuition waivers, covering costs normally paid solely from course enrollment fees.

The administration and staff and faculty members have embraced the notion of making full use of the summer to get students closer to graduation, Oberlander said, adding, “We don’t want to sacrifice the students on the likelihood that they now had to go on the five-year or six-year plan.”

While summer enrollment figures across the country will only be estimates for at least the next several weeks, concrete data from some of the CSU institutions suggest that free tuition drives the numbers up.

“So far, it’s been a real success,” Oberlander said of the tuition waiver, “and it’s been exciting to see all the students who want to finish their classes.”

Small private universities have had similar success with summer tuition breaks.

Howard Payne University in Texas announced on May 18 that for the third straight year, it would offer 50 percent off tuition for summer courses. Cory Hines, who has been president of the university since 2019, said the lower tuition was a significant motivation for students.

“Students from our area who may be home from college elsewhere might need to take some undergraduate classes, and HPU is making a wide range of classes available,” he said.

Northwest Indian College, a tribal institution in Washington State, announced on May 3 that summer courses would be free, a first for the college, “particularly in an effort to close equity gaps” between Indigenous students, who make up 91.7 percent of its 975 students, and non-Indigenous students elsewhere. The waiver is also designed to help transfer students and returning students catch up on their classes and graduate sooner, according to its announcement.

Community colleges have long capitalized on students at four-year institutions taking summer courses at community colleges, either in person or online. Several community colleges also still have free tuition offers they put in place when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. Some of those offers are available to all students, and others are available to targeted groups such as returning students, older students, first-generation students and essential workers.

Many colleges and universities put in place tuition waivers and reductions, and programs like the one offered by the CSU system, in response to the pandemic, which led to sharp drops in enrollment at many four-year and two-year institutions and disrupted the progress students were making toward graduating. Students from underrepresented groups were particularly affected, often because of pandemic-related job losses, increased family care responsibilities and lack of broadband access.

Summer enrollment began rising again in 2021 at some institutions as they continued to offer tuition waivers or reductions. Many institutions used federal COVID-19 relief funds to subsidize summer tuition. Some institutions that previously offered one summer session began offering two or more shorter sessions that allowed students to earn more credits in order to catch up after not taking summer courses or stopping out during the pandemic.

Summer enrollment at community colleges is often difficult to gauge until long after sessions begin, or in some cases after the sessions end. Community college officials are looking at the trends of previous years to see if they will hold up this year. Matt Reed, vice president for academic affairs at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, noted recently noted in his column, “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” that not only has overall summer enrollment become difficult to predict, so is enrollment from one summer session to the next: “Your guess is as good as mine,” he wrote.

Brad Phillips, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, an advocacy group for the state’s 16 community colleges, said summer enrollment increases during the last two years were followed by enrollment declines in the fall. He said the declines were due to students’ uncertainty about the course of the pandemic and the economy. He said inflation, higher gas prices and other recent financial pressures will also influence students’ decisions on whether to enroll for summer courses this year.

“There’s so much to consider, especially during a pandemic,” Phillips said. “You’ll never be able to determine who all will go where until they actually do.”

With all those factors possibly influencing students’ choices, summer enrollment totals may remain inconsistent and unpredictable. Summer enrollment at the 37 public four-year and two-year institutions in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system was down 6.6 percent from the same period in 2021, and 2021 was down 6.7 percent from 2020, according to university system spokesman Doug Anderson.

At the University of Minnesota’s five campuses, 2022 projections were not available, but summer enrollment has declined steadily since 2012, except for an increase in 2020, the first summer of the pandemic.

Officials at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which governs the state’s four-year public colleges, were also unable to predict the outlook for summer enrollment. Overall undergraduate enrollment has fallen from 83,052 in the 2018–19 academic year to 73,448 in 2021–22. Kevin Hensil, a system spokesman, said while it’s too early for an accurate estimate, “We are cautiously optimistic that systemwide enrollment will return at or near 2019 levels.”

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