How one university is changing the summer session model

As a tool for student success, the summer session at Loyola University New Orleans will boost engagement in current events and help students improve as online learners with free online courses
By: | June 3, 2020
(Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash)(Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash)
Carol Ann MacGregor is vice provost and associate professor of sociology at Loyola University New Orleans.

Carol Ann MacGregor is vice provost and associate professor of sociology at Loyola University New Orleans.

Summer sessions are an interesting administrative oddity. They often have the potential to bring in more revenue to an institution than a small increase in student persistence or the creation of a new degree program.

Unlike those efforts, however, summer sessions rarely seem to have a related task force focused on benefits, to end up in strategic plans, or to be well-staffed. At smaller institutions, they often land in the lap of someone—a vice provost or a director of continuing education, for example—who has several other responsibilities.

The model has been the same for years. Students, if they can pay, are offered an opportunity to catch up or get ahead, and the institution generates critical revenues just in time for the end of the fiscal year.

This year, in light of COVID-19 and strategic efforts to continuously improve our students’ persistence, Loyola University New Orleans has decided not to simply roll over what has worked in the past, but to optimize our summer offerings instead by intentionally focusing on summer sessions as a tool for student success and engagement.


Read: Updated: 117 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic


Offering free online courses

We are offering two free courses designed to level the playing field, keep students engaged over the summer and highlight our faculty’s expertise vis-a-vis current events.

The first is a one-credit course to help students improve as online learners.

Even prior to COVID-19, many institutions were moving summer offerings online to match demand from students returning home for the summer or traveling for internships or work opportunities.

We are offering two free courses designed to level the playing field, keep students engaged over the summer and highlight our faculty’s expertise vis-a-vis current events.

While the spring semester highlighted how adaptable both faculty and students can be, we believe deeply in fostering a growth mindset. Learning online is not something you are good or bad at, it is something you can get better at with intentionality and good habits.

When a student registers now for any summer course, they are offered the opportunity to take this class for free. Staff members in our Pan-American Life Student Success Center will teach it. They will be paid the adjunct rate for a one-credit course for each section—a small amount compared with the course’s potential to help students stay on track and benefit from the investment they have made in summer school.


Read: How Whitman College created a COVID-19 course


We hope that students who take this class will return to us in the fall with an enhanced capacity to succeed. We will be monitoring the success of this pilot by examining the impact of offering the course on summer unproductive credits or DFW rates.

The second free course Loyola New Orleans is offering is a three-credit general elective: “Understanding COVID-19.” The course draws on faculty experts in biology, sociology, criminology, business and psychology to explain the origins and larger significance of the pandemic. It was inspired by a similar effort at the University of Connecticut; that class became the school’s largest with over 4,000 students enrolled.

There are also institutional benefits from having a large number of students return to campus with a better understanding of why treating COVID-19 seriously is important. The response to the course has been overwhelmingly positive, and as a general elective, this free class largely doesn’t compete against our paid summer offerings.


Read: 4 ways higher ed is helping students afford their tuition


Providing an opportunity to catch up

While our spring course withdrawal rates at Loyola weren’t dramatically different than those of previous semesters, we know that some students struggled with the sudden transition, and we wanted to ensure they had an opportunity to catch up—regardless of means to pay.

In the K-12 space, literature is devoted to concerns about learning loss over the summer. In higher education, we might do well to think more about how to maximize summer opportunities for students while acknowledging that a good number of students will not have the means to pay, especially with comparatively little federal or institutional aid available for summer.

The costs of doing so are relatively low—and the opportunity for a return on investment is clear.


Carol Ann MacGregor is vice provost and associate professor of sociology at Loyola University New Orleans. She leads Loyola’s institutional research, accreditation and student success efforts, as well as summer school operations. 


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