Sorry, Alice Cooper: For many UNCA students, school’s not out for summer. Determined to graduate on time and with less debt, growing numbers of the school’s students are opting for summer credit hours instead of summer pool hours, according to Assistant Provost Pat McClellan.
“Right now, we’re running just slightly ahead of where we were at the end of last summer,” McClellan reports. In 2010, students signed up for 4,950 credit hours during the summer session. This year, before the drop/add period, students had registered for 5,434 credit hours, a roughly 10 percent increase. The trend has held steady over the last several years, says McClellan, though the reasons for it vary.
For senior Megan Dombroski, signing up for eight hours of summer classes was a question of time and money. “When I recently looked at my four-year plan, I realized if I did not do summer classes I would be here for an extra semester, if not an extra year. I just don’t really have the financial means to stay longer than I have to,” the mass-communication major explains.
Dombroski’s financial situation shifted dramatically after her father changed careers — from chemical engineer to massage therapist, which paid less. When Megan started college, she realized money would be a bigger factor than she’d originally planned.
“When I graduated high school and he was working as a massage therapist and my mom was working in retail and as a preschool teacher, I was still not really aware of how little money they were making. I still had that mindset that my dad would take care of me, along with a financial-aid package,” she reveals.
But Dombroski got a reality check when the stock market crashed in 2008: Her father had invested most of her college money in the stock market and lost a good bit of it.
After her first semester, Dombroski left school. But her determination to make it back to UNCA never wavered.
“I went home and took a semester off and worked retail for a long time. Sometimes I’d work lots of hours … 40 hours a week, sometimes less,” she recalls. “Eventually, I saved up enough money and got a financial-aid package, got subsidized loans and was able to come back the next fall. I’ll graduate on time if I take and pass these summer classes.”
Dombroski’s experience is not uncommon, McClellan notes. “For a lot of families, this economy is high-stress. Just with the conversations that I’ve had with parents and students, it seems like there’s a greater feeling from the students of, ‘I need to finish up as soon as I can — I don’t want to have any more debt than I need to.’”
Dombroski is in class from 10:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day, with a one-hour break. She invested her money in summer classes because of advice her father gave her during high school. “My dad always told me to never feel guilty about college, because education is the best thing I could ever spend my money on,” she remembers.
Time to focus
Sometimes, taking summer classes is less about getting the hours than about really getting the material.
“There is no time for bull: We’re together every day for a couple hours, and wonderful discussions have ensued in all of my summer classes that just simply aren’t present in the fall and spring classes,” says Justine Travis. Certain kinds of courses, says Travis, really thrive on the intensive summer schedule.
McClellan, who taught math at UNCA before becoming assistant provost, agrees. “Teaching math in the summer … was good for the short term,” she explains. “We met every day — it’s funny, especially with math, how something so clear in class has become fuzzy when you sit down to face the problems yourself. But in the summer, that’s the only thing you’re really focusing on, compared to juggling 16 or 18 credit hours.”
McClellan took a summer class herself when she was a UNCA student. “That summer, I couldn’t find a job, and my mom said: ‘I don’t think you should sit around the house all summer. Why don’t you go to summer school?’ I took chemistry and I actually really enjoyed it, because that was all I was doing.”
Travis finds that kind of strong focus on one or two subjects particularly helpful with text-heavy courses such as humanities. “My single favorite class at UNCA, that kept my faith in the school's staffing choices, was my humanities 324 class with professor Teddy Uldricks last summer,” she reveals. “It was the best class ever, hands down.”
A temporary trend?
Will the school’s summer credit-hour enrollment continue to grow?
“We just don’t know; it depends,” says McClellan. “I consider summer school to be a service to the students — it’s an option for them.”
For her part, Dombroski believes summer enrollment will stay strong as long as it serves students’ needs. “If it can help you graduate, if it can help you get that degree faster, and if you can actually focus on your reading instead of juggling it with 16 or 18 other hours, I think it’s a good deal. The big issue is that people are looking to get out of college and see what they need to do next.”
The 21-year-old hopes to graduate next spring, but then comes the next challenge: finding a job. “I think the fear of being in the real world is very real,” she reports. “I keep hearing these terrible things about our degrees being the new high-school diploma, [even though] we put in four years, sometimes more, and lots of money. We don’t want to hear that we won’t have a job, or that we just have to go to graduate school. We’re tired: We’ve been in school since we were 4 or 5 years old.”
— UNCA senior Caitlyn Byrd is an editor at The Blue Banner, the campus newspaper paper.