College students are increasingly forgoing summers off to save money, stay on track

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Towson University student Christelle Etienne isn’t whiling away these long, lazy days of summer lounging by the pool or hanging out with friends from high school.

Instead, she’s sitting in a classroom at Montgomery College taking classes in anatomy and physiology.

A pre-nursing and foreign language major with a double minor, Etienne is hoping the extra work will keep her on schedule to earn her bachelor’s degree.

[The Washington Post]

This story also appeared in The Washington Post

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That’s something only 42 percent of first-time, full-time college students manage to do, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And the longer students take to finish, the more they wind up paying.

A growing number of students have started to forgo long summer breaks to cut costs and stay on track to graduation. And since many four-year institutions largely shut down between May and late August thanks to an academic calendar that predates the industrial era, many are going to community colleges.

Listening to lectures and slogging through schoolwork in the summer “is no joke,” Etienne said. “But there are so many classes I have to take.”

This phenomenon has grown so much it has a name: “summer swirl.” There’s been a steady increase in summer swirlers anxious to speed up their progress to graduation, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks this. They are also more likely to graduate from their home institutions than their classmates who don’t take summer classes, the clearinghouse found.

“This just all points to the fact that students are going down nontraditional paths of enrollment and enrolling in multiple institutions,” said Faye Huie, a research associate there.

Community colleges are happy for the extra business. Their enrollment has declined by 27 percent, or nearly two million students, since 2010, the clearinghouse reports. Many are now actively promoting their summer programs. “Success Doesn’t Stop with Summer,” proclaims Suffolk County Community College in New York, over a photo of a bespectacled professor holding class outdoors. “It’s affordable! It’s easy! It’s flexible! It’s smart!” declares Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey. Montgomery College has also launched a campaign to draw more visiting students and has a dedicated webpage for them.

Meanwhile, changes to federal financial aid have made summer classes more accessible. Since last year, students have been able to use federal Pell Grants for summer study; those who do so get an average of $1,500, according to the National Summer Learning Association.

Despite these changes, students who want to graduate as quickly as possible still bump up against the traditional schedule. The current nine-month academic calendar dates back to agrarian times, when students were needed to help with planting and the harvest, said Ken Smith, vice provost for academic resource management at Virginia Tech, a four-year university that has two summer sessions.

Around the turn of the 20th century, some schools began to offer a few summer sessions in which students would do field studies in the warmer months. But attempts to change the traditional academic schedule didn’t take hold.

Smith pointed to institutions that considered making changes, such as Purdue, which announced that it would switch to what it called a “balanced trimester” plan in 2012, with a full slate of summer courses. But that never happened because it would have required the rewriting of traditional nine-month faculty contracts and figuring out how faculty would be paid to work in the summer, a Purdue spokesperson said. At the time, the federal government also limited Pell Grants to two terms per year.

The average number of courses offered per four-year campus in the summer actually fell between 2014 and 2017, the last period for which the figures are available, according to a survey by the Association of University Summer Sessions. Those universities and colleges that responded to the survey offered an average of 766 summer courses, though more than a third were online or parts of study abroad programs.

In the future, four-year public universities may add more, largely because they’re under pressure from legislatures and others to use their facilities year-round, said Rachel Miller, who directs summer programs at the University of Virginia and serves as president of the association. “We are seeing a push, especially for state institutions, to justify having the lights on and the buildings occupied during the summer.”

For now, however, community colleges are often the only choice for students at four-year institutions that don’t offer the summer classes they need.

Criminal justice major Kyara Hernandez Escobar has taken classes at Montgomery College since 2015, when she fell behind in her program at Trinity Washington University.

This summer she’s taking four classes at Montgomery, in part because Trinity Washington didn’t offer the courses she needed. “The majority of classes [Trinity] was offering, I had already taken,” she said.

Sanaa Mironov took off most of last year from her studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, or UMBC, when she had a baby. She’s catching up by taking math and science classes this summer at Montgomery College, where she already plans to take two physics courses next summer.

By doing this, “I am still able to finish school within four years,” she said. “It’s reducing the amount of time that I have to take to complete my degree, and it’s also helping me financially, since I’m paying everything out of pocket.”

For a four-credit class during the summer at UMBC, Mironov would have paid $1,560 in resident tuition. The same class at Montgomery College costs around $690. The community college is also closer to where she lives.

UMBC does offer summer courses — about 400 of them, compared to more than 1,000 at Montgomery College.

Beth Snyder Jones, UMBC’s associate vice provost for summer, winter and special programs, said her staff sends enrollment data to the academic departments about high-demand courses in the spring and fall, and about courses that were popular during previous summer sessions. “The goal is to offer classes [in the summer] that students need,” she said.

Thirty years ago, students might have taken “fun” classes during the summer, she said, “but nowadays we’re very aware that students have a lot on their plates, and they are going to take classes that advance them toward graduation.”

Engineering major Justin Glou, who just finished his freshman year at Syracuse University, is spending time this summer at Montgomery’s campus in Rockville, near where his family lives.

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