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Summer school? That sounds cool.

With money tight and jobs scarce, a growing number of college students are choosing classes over time at the beach

Thanks to Northeastern's co-op program, Sherrette Yeates views summer courses as 'regular school in summer.'' Thanks to Northeastern's co-op program, Sherrette Yeates views summer courses as "regular school in summer.'' (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / June 22, 2010

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Summer school used to be the place you were incarcerated after flunking math. The word “remedial’’ was branded on your forehead the first day of class. Worse, you lost serious beach time.

Forget remedial. College administrators who run summer programs agree those days are long gone, replaced by a summer academic experience that reflects the growing reality of year-round education for an increasing numbers of students eager to get ahead, especially if that means saving tuition money.

Gavin Rottman, a Boston University sophomore this fall, is majoring in electrical engineering and hopes to get a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins after college. He’s taking calculus and psychology now and plans to take more summer courses next year. Not only does the summer session feel less stressful, he says, it’s much cheaper. A course in the regular school year runs $4,736. The freight for one in summer is $2,120.

“I want to get ahead in school,’’ Rottman says, walking down an eerily quiet Commonwealth Avenue. “I finish earlier, and it’s cheaper to go to summer school. The school year is really rough, and summer school is relaxing. You have a lot of homework, but you can go outside to do it.’’

There are more students like Rottman flocking to summer schools these days. Enrollment has been inching up in the last decade, as have the number of summer course offerings at many schools. Bill McClure, head of the summer program at UMass-Amherst and incoming president of the North American Association of Summer Sessions, recently had a conference call with a dozen of its members.

“Nearly everybody reported an uptick in registration, particularly online,’’ he says.

The larger import is clear. “This tells me education is a year-round activity,’’ says Donna Shea, director of BU’s summer program. “It’s now part of the whole educational package. They’re not taking summers off as they used to do. They get a taste of independence and don’t want to live with their parents.’’

Dennis Nunes, head of the summer program at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, agrees: “More students are using summer simply as another semester.’’

There are many other reasons why undergraduates are showing up in greater numbers for summer sessions. (Most, like BU, have two — an early one that runs from mid-May to late June, and another that starts at the end of June and runs to early August.)

Some do so to meet new requirements as they change majors, or to better handle a double major. They go in droves to reduce the stress and course load during the regular year. Some go to save money. If they can acquire a semester’s worth of credits, they save $25,000 in a two-semester year at private institutions like BU and Boston College where the price tag runs around $50,000.

And then there are those for whom college is something to deal with as quickly as possible on their way to graduate school and beyond. “They look at the undergraduate experience as an obstacle in their way,’’ says Loy Lytle, head of the summer program at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “They want to get it out of the way, so they’re more motivated to graduate earlier.’’

Some just like summer school better. Chelsea Bednarski, a BU student from Greenfield, is taking two classes in the first summer semester — along with the two she took last summer — and will graduate in August.

“I prefer to take intense summer courses over the regular ones,’’ she says. “They’re strong on discussion, and you don’t get that in the regular year. It’s more of a deep experience. There are fewer bodies, too. The most I’ve had in class is 11. It leaves much more time to talk and ask questions. I wish it could always be like this. Also, I’m less likely to slip through the cracks this way.’’

Another big reason why they’re taking summer courses? Summer jobs are painfully hard to come by.

“Getting a job today is almost impossible, so this is an alternative,’’ says the Rev. James Woods, who has been running the summer program at BC for over 25 years. “The pay is so small it’s hardly worth the effort.’’ And there’s always the summer deal on courses there, he notes. An undergraduate summer course runs $1,824, while last year, a three-credit course during the regular school year cost $3,987.

The undisputed leader of year-round education is Northeastern University, which pioneered the idea of a co-op program in 1909. Today, it offers a five-year undergraduate degree, usually with three semesters spent working in the outside world. So students there are used to summer classes. It’s part of their education. Sherrette Yeates, a junior from Trinidad, is majoring in electrical engineering, as is her lab mate, Eric Frost, of Connecticut. She shrugs at her schedule and says, “This is regular school in summer.’’

One of the biggest changes in summer school is the spike in online courses. “It has exploded,’’ says Nunes of St. Cloud State. “It fits well for a student in summer. Five years ago, 6 percent of summer students were taking online courses. Last year, it was 26 percent. It should be well over 30 percent this year.’’

The online profile is even larger at UMass-Amherst where, according to McClure, there were 4,900 online enrollments last summer, compared to 5,100 for “face to face’’ summer classes. This year, he says, it’s shot up higher. As of mid-June, 6,000 students had enrolled for online courses (UMass-Amherst enrollment continues through mid-July). Meanwhile, face-to-face enrollments have plunged to 3,300.

Part of that could be due to class costs. This year, fees for in-person classes increased by 20 percent at the school, while online course costs rose only 10 percent. “That made the price equal,’’ McClure said. That ends up making the online option more attractive. (Undergraduate in-state cost for a three-unit class is now $1,059.) “You know, you don’t have to drive, you don’t have to park.’’ That said, the online profile at BU’s summer sessions are modest, says Shea.

So we generalize at our peril about the summer school dynamic. Most undergraduates, after all, don’t attend it. But it is, for an increasing number of students, simply another semester in the year that offers more options toward a degree.

It is, then, a manifestation of the movement toward year-round education. Summer school is currently dominated by a self-selecting group of very motivated students. But what about the rest of the undergraduates? Will they ever buy into 12 months a year of school too?

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.