In a bid to keep students on track during the pandemic, a handful of small colleges are offering a period of free tuition if they enroll full time for the fall term.
Among them is Washington state's Pacific Lutheran University, which is giving undergraduates an extra year tuition-free after their scheduled graduation date if they enroll full time for the coming academic year.
The offers come just weeks before students are expected back on campuses, which will have new safety measures in place designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Earlier this week, Pacific Lutheran announced that undergraduate students enrolled full-time in the 2020-21 academic year can take a tuition-free year to finish or supplement their degree. Full-time graduate students will be eligible to take free continuing education credits.
Pacific Lutheran rolled out the offer on the same day it released its fall plan, which will include a mix of in-person, hybrid and online courses.
Some colleges expect steep enrollment decreases this year, but Allan Belton, Pacific Lutheran's president, said the school didn't offer the deal to increase its fall headcount. The university surpassed its first-year and transfer targets and is expecting about 2,900 students this semester.
Belton bills it as a way to help students have a full college experience. "They're not going to have all the musical experiences and the athletic competitions and lectures and some of that true community building that happens on a small residential campus," Belton said.
Pacific Lutheran also doesn't expect the offer to have a large impact on its revenue because officials didn't expect to have those students in the fifth year. However, Belton noted the university may have to invest in maintaining small class sizes.
St. Norbert College, in Wisconsin, recently debuted a similar deal. Full-time undergraduates who complete the full 2020-21 academic year will be able to take a tuition-free, ninth semester to finish credits they need to graduate.
The college — which plans to mostly have a mix of in-person and hybrid courses — hopes the offer will make it easier for students to scale back their course loads this year or make up experiences they missed out on, such as athletic competitions.
"It's one small thing that the college can do to help these students make good choices to keep enrolled and to stay on the path to graduate," said Brian Bruess, St. Norbert's president. "If it's a semester more than you had planned, let's make this better by offering it at no tuition."
Bruess stressed that incentivizing students to graduate is more important than lost revenue. The college is expecting roughly 1,900 students for the fall term, around 50 more than it had budgeted.
Another college, in Mississippi, added a twist to its deal. Undergraduates who enroll full time in Belhaven University's campus-based programs this fall could receive a full-tuition scholarship for one of its online master's degrees. To be eligible, they must remain full-time, campus-based students until they graduate, the university said in the announcement.
Roger Parrott, Belhaven's president, said the offer means to help students "focus on their long-term future" instead of the ways the pandemic limits campus life and the college experience. Because the offer applies to all classes of students, the college expects the missed-out revenue will be spread out over time.
Belhaven is offering mostly in-person classes this fall, though some faculty members will be conducting courses virtually. The university budgeted for enrollment to be down about 15%, though it hasn't seen that decrease materialize.
"We're still two-and-a-half weeks out, so it could change," Parrott said. "I think a lot of families are going to make a last-minute decision, and I don't blame them."