Texas colleges expect larger online summer classes as students lose jobs, internships

Rising sophomores Macy Waldman, left, an integrative studies major at the University of North Texas, and her sister, Barry Waldman, a pre-nursing student the University of Texas at Arlington, do not plan to return to their campuses this fall. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

This fall, Macy and Barry Waldman, sisters from Wimberly, won’t be among peers returning to their respective college campuses at the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Arlington.

Instead they’ll be home, taking classes online to avoid catching the new coronavirus in packed lecture halls and communal dining rooms.

Staying home will likely set the rising sophomores back at least one semester in their studies, said their mother, Courtney Waldman, who worries about her daughters getting exposed to the virus while at school and then bringing it home during visits. The 53-year-old said tacking on the extra time is worth it to protect them and her husband, who had a medical incident on Christmas Day.

“They're more than willing to stay back a year if it means they're not going to kill their father,” Waldman said.

To get a head start on their year at home, Waldman said, the family is shelling out $6,900 to enroll both daughters in summer school at their institutions.

“We’re playing a little bit of defense,” Courtney Waldman said.

The Waldmans aren’t the only ones turning to online summer school while the fall remains in flux. As Texas higher education institutions brace for a financial hit as students navigate health and economic concerns, several schools contacted by The Texas Tribune are reporting significant jumps in summer enrollment compared with last year.

College students suddenly finding more time on their hands with canceled jobs, internships and trips abroad are flocking to online summer classes at Texas institutions en masse. And schools, seeing an opportunity to court students stuck at home, are ramping up their summer offerings and discounting tuition.

It’s welcome news for those schools navigating what a college experience in the pandemic looks like, but officials, still reeling financially from shutting down their campuses mid-semester, are unclear what the summer surge signals for their fall enrollment.

Summer enrollment on the rise

The University of Texas at Austin, which starts summer school Thursday, slashed the costs of summer classes, and students and parents have responded. The summer classes are usually offered at 85% of the regular cost of fall and spring semester classes. But because of the pandemic, UT is instead offering undergraduate summer classes at 50% of the fall and spring semester cost.

The flagship university has seen a surge in demand for its summer courses, university spokesperson J.B. Bird said. Among undergraduates, UT-Austin so far reports a 59% increase — 4,266 more students — over its summer 2019 enrollment.

“Of course, COVID-19 is a big factor here,” Bird said in an email. “More students are staying at home this summer, and far fewer are working jobs and internships. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to offer the discounted summer classes, as a way to help students save money while advancing toward the completion of their degrees.”

Students are also registering for more course hours compared with last summer: Undergraduates have, on average, registered for 0.59 more hours this summer, UT-Austin reports. The increase is driven by Texas residents, but all undergraduates, including out-of-state and international students, have registered for more hours on average, Bird said.

In Waco, officials at Baylor University have gone a similar route, offering students greater discounts as they take more classes. The student response has already outweighed the university’s expectations, said Jessica King Gereghty, Baylor’s assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions and enrollment.

The private Christian university reported May 8 that it had enrolled 831 more students — about a 22% increase — for this summer compared with last summer. This summer’s enrollment includes 700 rising high school seniors and incoming Baylor freshmen, who were included in the school’s recruitment efforts.

“These [are] students that really don't have a lot of opportunity this summer and want to just utilize the time to get ahead and get credits out of the way, and maybe get one semester closer to graduation than they would have if they wouldn't have done the summer,” King Gereghty said.

Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, expanded its summer program to accommodate for a dramatic jump in enrollment. This year, roughly 70% of students enrolled in summer school, compared with maybe 5% last year, college President Michael Sorrell said.

“Typically, we do not operate a significant summer school program,” Sorrell said. “This year we implemented one for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the desire to be more hands-on and engaging with our students. We wanted to provide some type of stability in the lives of our students.”

The increases are par for the course nationally, where institutions have seen summer enrollment hold steady because many summer classes are already offered online, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. In the past, most institutions have offered both in-person and online summer classes. Now, almost every institution has summer courses online, she said.

Both the University of North Texas and UT-Arlington, where Waldman’s daughters are enrolled for summer, report their summer enrollment is trending up but declined to provide specific numbers.

But with more Texans signing up for summer school, some students say they had trouble registering for the classes they wanted. At Texas State University, which as of May 7 had enrolled 805 more students for this summer than last summer — about a 6% increase — junior Michelle Aguilar said most classes were already full by the time she registered, and she was unable to secure a spot in a history class she needed.

“My [summer] schedule was planned back in January, and I was mentally prepared to take those classes,” Aguilar said. “It was spun out at the last minute.”

University spokesperson Jayme Blaschke said the increased enrollment was “not expected” but declined to speculate on the reasoning behind the surge.

Texas State, which had a fall enrollment of more than 38,000, can “easily accommodate the comparatively small uptick in summer enrollment,” Blaschke said.

Community college enrollment dips

To be sure, the virus has dramatically impacted schools’ summer programs and camps geared toward high school and middle school students, Pasquerella said, adding that institutions can make up to 10% to 15% of their total annual revenue from those events.

And while universities are seeing an increase in summer enrollment, some Texas community colleges are reporting drops in summer enrollment that paint an uncertain picture for fall.

In a “disturbing” trend, summer enrollment at Alvin Community College, in the Houston area, is down nearly 20%, said college President Christal Albrecht. The drop comes after the public community college saw its highest fall and spring enrollment ever during the 2019-2020 school year, she said.

“I don’t know what to make of it for sure,” Albrecht said. “I’m not sure if fall will also be low, not sure if it’s because, ‘I don't want to take online classes’ or ‘I’m broke because I lost my job or my parents lost their job.’ It’s atypical.”

Also forecasting a summer decline, El Paso Community College expects its summer enrollment to be down 3% to 5%, said college President William Serrata. The public institution expects enrollment to be down in the fall, but Serrata did not offer estimates of how steep that decline may be.

“Across the state, all of us are dealing with enrollment concerns,” said Serrata, who is also vice chair of the Texas Association of Community Colleges’ executive committee.

Overall, college applications at Texas universities seem to be coming in more slowly than in previous years, Harrison Keller, the state’s higher education commissioner, said in an interview. Still, there’s “a lot of uncertainty” around those numbers because of the pandemic. Keller noted that recessions have typically had a positive impact on higher education enrollment because when job opportunity is low, people often go back to school.

“Texas colleges and universities are responding swiftly and creatively to ensure the safety of their students, faculty and staff while supporting students’ continued academic progress,” Keller said. “Enrollment may fluctuate in the summer, but as past economic downturns have shown, higher education enrollment often increases during economic downturns.”

Still, school officials are reluctant to say whether increased summer enrollment will translate to the fall. Asked if he takes the jump in summer enrollment as a positive sign for fall, Sorrell, the Paul Quinn president, said, “I take it as a positive sign for summer.

“We hope it represents a positive sign for fall, we do, but at this point, all you can do is keep your fingers crossed,” he said.

Clare Proctor contributed to this report.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin, University of North Texas, University of Texas at Arlington, Texas State University, El Paso Community College and the Texas Association of Community Colleges have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.