Students at Michigan’s public universities are filling their summers with online coursework at record rates — marking an unexpected windfall for several schools strapped for cash as the coronavirus pandemic transforms campus activities.
Nine of the 10 institutions that shared data with the Free Press projected year-over-year growth in summer enrollment. Two-thirds of these schools anticipate a boost of at least 4% for one or more of their summer periods.
The figures contrast with administrators’ expectations for the fall, with 56% of college presidents nationwide forecasting an enrollment decline of 11% or more, according to a May survey by the American Council on Education. Trouble recruiting pupils is compounded by constricted state appropriations and widespread tuition freezes, creating mounting financial pressure for public universities.
Seth Cohen, an MSU senior majoring in advertising management, said he signed up for summer classes to “knock out” a few requirements for his degree. Although he was already considering them before COVID-19 hit, Cohen said, pandemic-related limitations made registration an easier choice.
“I just knew that I was going to have a lot of free time, stuck in the house, not really being able to do much or hang out with friends or anything,” Cohen said. “If I was to take an online class, I would be pretty engaged for the most part.”
For many universities, these new numbers translate to much-appreciated profits. Eastern Michigan University Vice President Kevin Kucera wrote in an email that the school expects summer credit hour production to be up 4% and 25% for the first and second sessions of the season, respectively. Despite initial worries that EMU would lose nearly $4 million because of an enrollment drop, “robust” interest in the programs should instead fuel around $750,000 in extra revenue, relative to last year.
At Wayne State University, only about a third of “spring/summer” credit hours — scheduled for May through August — are normally taken online, according to Registrar Kurt Kruschinska. This term, with nearly all instruction shifting to virtual in light of social-distancing guidelines, participation is up nearly 6%.
Dawn Medley, the school’s associate vice president of enrollment management, said she thinks these “pretty amazing numbers” are especially driven by incoming freshmen. Wayne State recently launched its Kick Start College program, which is slated to give around 700 new students a chance to get ahead on their graduation requirements with a free class. The offering is particularly geared toward helping students prepare for the possibility of virtual learning come fall.
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“The courses are designed to launch them into and make sure that they are successful and comfortable in an online or virtually distant environment,” Medley said. “And that’s why we selected English and the communication course — so that students would gain those foundational skills as we look to fall, and as we look to what our fall semester may look like.”
Despite the widespread boom in summer school, not all colleges’ programs are burgeoning. Michigan State University spokesperson Daniel Olsen said on June 12 that because its study abroad opportunities were canceled amid the travel halt, MSU summer enrollment was down 6.5% from the same time last year. As a result, the university projected a 4% revenue decline.
In contrast to MSU, at Wayne State University,  student Ramy Darwish, who plans to graduate this fall with a degree in economics, said there was a “noticeable uptick” in the number of his friends taking credits this summer. Darwish is enrolled in courses spanning psychology, economics and globalization, and he streams recorded lectures from his house in Lansing.
“I go downstairs, usually in the basement because it’s quiet, it’s a furnished room, and study down there,” Darwish said. “I prefer to go to cafes, usually, but they’re all mainly closed for indoor seating.”
Some summer programs have been more adaptable to virtual platforms than others. Wayne State environmental science student Ashley LaCroix said she was looking forward to a required course on soils that usually involves extensive hands-on fieldwork. As a science major, she said, it feels like she is being “cheated out of a decent education.”
“Looking at pictures just doesn’t do it justice,” LaCroix said.
Michigan Medicine statistician John Poe, who teaches graduate-oriented summer courses for the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, said he is “pleasantly surprised” by students’ engagement in the virtual setting. After hearing stories about the difficult transition to online courses midway through the spring, he was “very concerned” about how the summer might play out.
“People have been very engaged, asking lots of questions,” Poe said. “I think it’s actually going to end up working out pretty well, at least in the context of summer program.”
Given unavoidable obstacles like “Zoom fatigue” on videoconferencing platforms and distraction-ridden home environments, flexibility has been central to Poe’s teaching.
“I think the biggest thing is just to make sure that we have as many modes of communication as possible,” Poe said. “Asynchronous communication — in conjunction with being able to actually face-to-face talk to someone over Zoom — is really important.”