Insights in Education Marketing – Is Summer the new college year?

Once upon a time summer school was viewed as remediation.  Now summer is becoming the hottest option in college education — in more ways than one.  

According to a long-term tracking study by the US Department of Education, 63% of all undergraduates attended school during summer terms.1 

Beyond the two-semester tradition

Colleges increasingly see summer as an opportunity for expansion.  For some, it’s a way to  increase student graduation rates.  The most recent Education Department data show four-year graduation rates at 54% for public and 64% at private universities. To raise that number, colleges are responding with such tactics as reducing tuition for summer enrollments — in some cases even offering courses for free. The US Department of Education found that   “Summer term enrollment was positively related to bachelor’s degree completion: students who enrolled for at least one summer term were more likely than others to complete a bachelor’s degree.” Some of their findings were due of degree acceleration, others related to students who switched majors and had to make up credits during the summer.  But clearly the trend is toward summer as a progression of education rather than remediation.

If you’re a student considering summer courses, keep in mind that summer sessions vary in length. Some are as short as 5 weeks, but cover an entire semester’s material in that time.  As a consequence, one or two courses/credits may be all you can handle.  Think in terms of credits earned rather than semesters completed.

Summer bridge programs improve graduation rates

For U.S. students, a summer semester at their accepted university is an opportunity to get a headstart on freshman year, honing skills like essay writing that they may have missed in high school. As colleges push to diversify their student bodies, they are challenged by the variance of preparedness for students who may not have had equal opportunities.  According to a White House report on increasing opportunities for low-income students, they are “less likely to take a core curriculum, and less likely to meet readiness benchmarks on college entrance exams.” The response has been the development of “summer bridge” sessions, designed to help students, some of whom may be the first in their families to attend college, understand the structure, requirements, and opportunities that are available to them. Increasing the sense of belonging on campus directly impacts the likelihood of completion to graduation.  

Project GRAD’s college access program includes summer bridge programs at local universities; college and career planning through individual counseling, college access forums, workshops, and career fairs; college visits for students and parents; SAT/PSAT preparation; assistance with loan and scholarship applications; and tutoring and mentoring. In the longest-served group of schools, GRAD’s students are completing college at a 92 percent rate, and earning STEM degrees at a rate 71 percent above the national average for minority students.

Summer sessions generate revenue from foreign students

Even though many private colleges cut summer tuition to make up for the lack of financial aid and because, typically, fewer services are offered, the additional season can drive significant revenue and amortize salary and physical plant costs,

The primary growth opportunity for many colleges has come from reaching beyond their own student body to other audiences.  Students from foreign countries are especially eager to experience American colleges. According to a 2015 study by the  Institute of International Education which polled students in 19 countries on 5 continents, 74% of prospective students said the US is their top choice for foreign study, and 77% perceive the US as offering higher quality higher education. Foreign student bloggers report positive experiences, including the exposure to a classroom structure that encourages/requires student participation — a noted exception to their accustomed practice in their home country.

The preponderance of foreign students has come from China, although there are signs that that trend may be weakening as American campuses experience a difficulty in achieving meaningful global assimilation, and as China’s politics resist the “westernization” of thought that foreign education brings.

Paying for it

If a student has financial aid through a year-round Pell Grant, or federal student aid like Perkins, Stafford or a PLUS loan, the amount received is meant to cover a full academic year. So any amount that hasn’t been spent up to the annual maximum should be applicable to a summer semester. Each student should check the terms of their grant or aid package. If there are funds remaining, a Free Application for Federal Student Aid should be completed to receive federal student aid for the summer, either using the remainder in a current year award or to start using the eligible amount for the coming year.  The National Student Loan Data System tracks how much federal student aid each student has received in a given year.

Students who elect to take summer courses at their regular enrolled institution, may continue to be eligible for financial aid for a summer session under the standing terms of their agreement.  Each student should check with their school’s financial aid office to see if a separate summer loan application is required.  Don’t count on financial aid if you go to a summer course at another school.  If they offer aid for the summer at all, it’s most likely they reserve those funds for their own enrolled students.

Summer Online Options

If you need to work or have other summer obligations, online courses for credit may be a smart option.  Again, each school differs in terms of their credit guidelines and requirements.  They may require pre-approval or other specific reporting, or only allow certain types of courses to qualify. They may accept online credit from only a restricted group of institutions.  

Online courses come in different types, ranging from Massive (MOOCS) to small, private (SPOCS). The amount of attention each student gets makes a difference in cost and also in the level of quality of the education.  Drop out rates for MOOCS are high after the first few classes — A University of Pennsylvania study showed completion rates averaged only 4%, rising to only 14% for courses that had fewer demands.  So unless you’re a highly motivated student, the lecture format and lack of individual attention may not work for you. You may also have more difficulty transferring credit for a MOOC.

SPOCs (Small, private online courses) come in different varieties. Typically the students do the course reading or viewing on their own time and then meet in a virtual classroom for discussion, conducted in real-time by a professor. Take heed — because the session are live the courses require you to show up at the appointed time — just like you would for a live class.  Student who miss too many classes have found themselves booted out — losing both tuition and credit.  Check the requirements of the course and if it interrupts work hours, speak with your summer boss about the time you’ll need.

Cultural change

If  it seems unfair that summer as a long stretch of leisure time is being displaced by year-round education, keep this in mind: the summers-off structure we think of as normal has only been around for about 100 years, and was based on the fact that students needed to go help their families labor in the fields to get the crops ready and then harvested.  Doesn’t a little class time seem like a reasonable exchange for heavy labor in the hot sun?  Yeah. We thought so too.


1U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Postsecondary Attainment, Attendance, Curriculum, and Performance: Selected Results From the NELS:88/2000 Postsecondary Education Transcript Study (PETS), 2000, NCES 2003–394, by Clifford Adelman, Bruce Daniel, and Ilona Berkovits. Project Officer: Jeffrey Owings. Washington, DC: 2003.