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Summer Special Offers

Colleges are offering free online summer courses in an effort to keep students engaged and on track to graduate. Will it work?

July 16, 2020
 
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Amid fears of low fall enrollment and widespread disruption to students’ academic progress, colleges are getting creative with ways to engage with students. 

At Fairfield University, a small private institution in Connecticut, incoming freshmen are being offered the chance to get ahead on their studies with a free course online this summer.

“Our senior leadership decided that we had to do something to help the high school Class of 2020. They had their educational experience turned upside down at one of the most exciting points in their lives,” said Mark Ligas, vice provost for undergraduate excellence and associate professor of marketing.

“These students have been told, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to college, but as you’re going through the process of making your final decision and getting excited to go to college, you can’t come see us. You can’t come and make sure you made the right decision,’” said Ligas. “We knew we needed to come up with a way of engaging with our incoming class.”

Leaders at Fairfield realized that giving students a taste of what it is like to be a student would be a great introduction to the institution, even if it is virtual. “Traditionally, we’d have a big on-campus orientation in the summer for our accepted students to come and meet faculty and staff and other students. We had to move all of that virtually, so we were looking for other ways to strengthen that bond with our students.”

The first step in setting up the program was to gauge interest, said Ligas. Fairfield admissions staff sent an email to incoming students asking if they might be interested in a free three-credit course in the summer. “Within 24 hours of sending that out, we had well over 500 responses. We had almost 800 students by the end of the week who were very interested, of an incoming class of 1,150 students. That was more than enough for us to say, this is a legitimate opportunity for us to start engaging with our students.”

Fairfield typically offers 20 general education courses online over the summer. But administrators quickly realized that the institution would need to expand its course offerings, said Ligas. “Ultimately we ended up adding 42 new classes that we created over the summer.” Class started on July 6 with 887 incoming first-year students enrolled; at the end of the first week, around 80 had dropped out.

It was important to Ligas that there shouldn’t be any consequence for dropping out of the summer courses. “We didn’t want a black mark on students’ records. If you drop out of the class, it’s like it never existed,” he said. Many students who’ve dropped out said they’d managed to get paid work over the summer or realized that they’d taken on too much, said Ligas.

Offering online classes to first-year students is a risk, acknowledged Jill Buban, vice president of digital strategy and online education at Fairfield. Faculty and administrators want students to have a good first impression of the institution, and are constantly thinking about how the online experience could be improved, said Buban

Fairfield is planning to offer face-to-face instruction in the fall, but will give students the option to study remotely after Thanksgiving. “If students do need to access courses online in the future, they’ll already have that skill set,” said Buban. “It will be one less anxiety-provoking experience for our new students.”

Bentley University, a private university located in Waltham, Mass., is also offering free summer classes to students as part of a flexible Trimester Program that will begin this fall. The program will give students the choice to take classes during the fall and spring, spring and summer, or in the fall, spring and summer, at no additional tuition cost. 

“The move to trimesters gives students flexibility to personalize their education and choose the way they study and learn,” said Donna Maria Blancero, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Bentley, in an email. “Bentley is committed to being innovative, creative and caring to support our students during this very challenging time,” she said.

Students who enroll full-time at Bentley in the fall and spring will receive full summer tuition free. Students who enroll part-time in the fall or spring will get partial summer tuition free. If it is safe to do so, students will be allowed to live in dorms and attend face-to-face classes during the 2021 summer trimester.

“We are planning a traditional start this fall but if public health circumstances do not allow it or families need to delay enrollment, this [Trimester Program] will give students an additional on-campus experience next summer,” says the Trimester Program website. “It will also reduce the overall cost of tuition and allow students to graduate early to join the workforce or get a jump start on their graduate degree.”

Students who graduated in the spring will also have the opportunity to take one free graduate school class, or one free course in Bentley’s graduate certificate program. Each graduate certificate requires three courses and is typically priced at $4,998. The certificate programs are currently on offer for a limited-time tuition price of $1,000 for anyone completing their first certificate program. 

A similar offer is available for graduates of Fairfield, said Walter Rankin, vice provost for graduate, professional and continuing studies at the university in an email. May 2020 graduates from Fairfield’s undergraduate programs can apply for scholarships that will cover the tuition of one introductory graduate course from a selection of 25 different programs, he said.  

California State University, Channel Islands, is also providing free summer courses to students, but with a focus on keeping existing undergraduate students on track to graduate, said Veronica Montoya, transfer student success activity director at CSUCI.

CSUCI is using money from the federal CARES Act stimulus funding to pay for undergraduate students who are already enrolled at the college to take one online summer course this year. So far, 769 students have registered to take classes in Summer Session B, which started this week. Most of these students received CARES Summer Grant Program funding, said Montoya.

Communicating the offer to students was challenging, said Montoya. “We put together a pretty substantial outreach program,” she said. CSUCI used social media, email, targeted text messaging and a video announcement recorded by the president to get the word out. The campaign was effective, generating thousands of hits on social media, said Montoya. 

“We wanted students to know what support is available, but with all that’s been going on, we didn’t want to barrage them with messages either. We tried to find a balance,” said Montoya.

Monica Sifuentes, a senior at CSUCI who transferred from Ventura Community College, said that the summer CARES program has helped her save over $1,000 and kept her on track to graduate in December. Sifuentes is majoring in psychology and wants to go on to graduate school, and perhaps become a college counselor or a researcher in social psychology.

“I was already planning to take a summer class, but then I lost one of my two summer jobs due to the pandemic and wasn’t able to afford summer tuition anymore,” said Sifuentes. With a fall semester already heavily booked, Sifuentes worried she wouldn’t be able to handle another class. But she didn’t want to delay her graduation. “I knew I needed to be done by the end of this year,” she said.

When she heard about the summer CARES grants, Sifuentes said she felt relieved -- relieved that her fall semester won’t be so packed, and confident that she’ll be able to graduate on time. She signed up for a four-credit summer online course in behavioral psychology. Classes started Monday.

So far, the class is going well, said Sifuentes. “It’s a pretty tough class to take, but I know taking it in the fall would have been extremely stressful,” she said. The class is well organized, with a mix of prerecorded videos, quizzes, chapter reading and synchronous virtual meetings. “It’s very smooth. I feel like I’m retaining a lot of information. Our instructor was kind enough to open up the class a week early so we could review all the materials.”

“Last summer I took an online course at CSUCI. I like that I’m only focusing on one class at a time,” said Sifuentes. The only downside is that the labs in her summer course aren’t quite the same online. “I want to be able to do cool, hands-on things in the lab, like work with skin conductivity sensors, but we won’t get to do that.”

Nonetheless, Sifuentes said she is grateful for the opportunity to keep studying. “The grant is very helpful for students like me. I know a lot of people have already gotten their grant, and it really helped them. This is what we, as students, needed.”

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