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Credit: Elena Zhukova

For more information

Berkeley summer session:
Berkeley summer session loan program:
(Enrollment opens mid-February)

UC Irvine summer session:
(Enrollment opens March 1)

San Diego summer session:
(Enrollment opens April 11)

For most college students, summer is synonymous with academic downtime, a season for putting aside books in favor of part-time jobs, trips to the beach and internships at Greenpeace or Google.

For university officials, however, summer conjures another image: half-empty lecture halls, darkened classrooms and underutilized housing facilities, all of which will be bursting at the seams come fall.

As UC officials look to boost California enrollment and help students graduate more quickly, many see fertile ground in expanding the role of summer session.

There's just one big catch: Summer courses aren't included in regular tuition, and many forms of financial aid, such as Pell Grants, don't cover it. Students who take out loans and use other gift aid to pay for college tend to exhaust those resources during the academic year. Costs for summer courses can range from $1,100 to $1,600 per course, plus fees and course materials.

Three UC campuses – Berkeley, Irvine and San Diego – this coming summer will pilot programs that offset student costs for summer classes to see whether it entices more to enroll.

If it works, it could prove pivotal in helping more students graduate within four years, said Michael Dennin, dean of undergraduate education at UC Irvine. And that translates into big savings on housing and tuition for students, and aligns better with cycles in the job market.

“Most of our students who don’t graduate in four years graduate in four years and a quarter,” Dennin said. "This can be a big win for the student.”

Each of the three campuses will try a different approach to funding summer session, with the same overall goal: saving students money and letting the university make more efficient use of teaching facilities.

Berkeley: Helping high achievers do it all

Forget the image of summer school as the refuge of slackers and strugglers.

“Some of our students are going for double majors and a minor, they want to go abroad and be in student government. To do that in four years during the academic year alone is basically impossible,” said UC Berkeley summer session dean Richard Russo. “Taking courses over the summer is a way for our students to satisfy their many and lofty academic ambitions.”

While roughly 70 percent of Berkeley students take at least one summer session course, cost is a factor that deters many from taking full advantage of the offerings, he said.

“For our middle class students, who have used up their loans and gift aid during the academic year, we really haven’t been able to help them very much,” Russo said.  “They might put it on a credit card and pay high interest rates, but there are no good options.”

The campus is looking to change that with a new low-cost loan program. Modeled on the structure of the federally-managed Perkins Loan, qualified students will be able to borrow funds for summer study at a 5 percent interest rate, with repayment and interest deferred until they graduate and enter the job market.

The university will fund the program with money from endowments.

“We manage a large portfolio of stocks and bonds,” Russo said. “Why not invest some of that in our students?”

In addition to traditional academic courses, Russo said, students will be able to use the loans to take advantage of opportunities like Berkeley’s “global internship,” which places students in jobs in cities around the world, such as London, Paris and Singapore.

“If I want to do summer study abroad – the fastest growing segment of study abroad – this loan can help me do that,” Russo said.

“Say I want to do a spring semester at the University of Tokyo or an internship at Google, and I need to go to summer session to satisfy the requirement for Differential Equations 4 so I can graduate on time. This can help do that too.”

San Diego: Cultivating a year-round live-work-learn culture

What can be done to get students to stick around for the summer? Mark Cunningham, executive director of housing and dining at UC San Diego, has a formula: great classes, cheap housing and a summer job a half mile from the beach.

“We’ve all learned to think of education as three quarters or two semesters with the summer off,” he said. “We are looking to build a vision, a practice and a belief that you go to school for four quarters. How do we change the rhythm so instead of ‘I have to go home,’ the mindset is, ‘I can stay here.’”

This summer, students who live in campus housing and are enrolled in summer session courses will be able to stay in their dorms for the same total cost as they would for nine months, plus a small additional fee to cover custodial services.

Students would be hard pressed to find anywhere else in beachy La Jolla for a price like that, Cunningham said.

Over the summer, student housing is rented out for conferences and camps. But keeping more students in the dorms would save money and resources, while still leaving space for outside groups.

“I have 11,000 students who move in within the same three days in June,” he said. “It takes 500 people working three straight days to clean up after them.” To convert dorms for outside use, ”I’ve got a small army putting in linens, setting blankets, bringing in beds, bringing in TVs. It’s a huge organizational effort. But what if we could convince more of the students to stay?”

Going forward, Cunningham sees opportunities for connecting students not only to housing but also to summer jobs. His office is working with career services to connect summer session students with temporary positions from staffing conference operations and summer camps to filling in on academic and administrative posts that are vacant for the summer.

“Imagine if we make it easy for students to work, to live here over the summer, to study and to do it affordably,” Cunningham said. “Instead of the benefits of leaving for the summer, we want to get students thinking about the benefits of staying.”

Irvine: Buy two classes, get the rest free

UC Irvine has instituted a fee cap during summer that enables students who take eight units – typically two classes – to take up to 12 additional units (three courses) at no additional cost. Students can take an entire quarter’s worth of courses for $2,168, a significant discount from academic-year tuition.

Students will benefit from Irvine’s large catalog of online offerings, which can enable them to schedule their coursework around summer employment, or even take courses remotely, from wherever they may be living or working.

Educators project that the fee cap will encourage hundreds of new students to give summer session a try, while significantly boosting the number of courses enrollees take.

“It doesn’t really cost the campus anything,” said Dennin, Irvine’s undergraduate dean. “There is enough unused space in the classes, and demand for any individual class is diffuse enough that we can slot students into existing classes."

The program, he said, will enable the campus to more efficiently utilize existing capacity – and amount to a big benefit for students.

“A lot of our students are here anyway over the summer. They are working, they’re doing research, they are around anyway. It’s nice to get a general education course or something else that’s missing out of the way.”