In an effort to get students back on campus after COVID interruptions, several Mississippi community colleges are making summer classes free. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

When COVID-19 hit Mississippi last spring, students at Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville flooded Michelle Baragona’s office to withdraw from their classes.

They cited similar reasons, said Baragona, the college’s vice president of instruction. Their parents were laid off, so they needed to work. They no longer felt safe attending class in-person.

As the year wore on, withdrawal requests kept coming in as students struggled to overcome pandemic-related academic challenges. In the fall semester, Baragona said one student requested to withdraw because his grades had suffered after he was exposed to COVID and quarantined four times.

In a bid to get these students back, several community colleges across the state are doing something they’ve never done before: making summer classes free.

The colleges are paying for the free summer classes with money from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), the portion of the federal stimulus package that’s set aside for colleges and universities.

Nearly $150 million in HEERF funding has poured into the coffers of Mississippi colleges and universities since last March. At least half of the funds must be spent on emergency financial aid grants for students. The rest is meant to cover institutional expenses related to the pandemic, like upgrading computers for distance learning or purchasing hand sanitizer stations and masks.

So far, three community colleges are using HEERF funds to cover summer tuition and some other expenses for students: East Mississippi Community College (EMCC), Northeast Mississippi Community College (NEMCC) and Hinds Community College.

Baragona hopes the free classes will provide a do-over to the students who left the college due to COVID-19. So far, that appears to be happening. NEMCC has seen 957 students register for summer classes since it opened enrollment on April 1 — about 200 more than they’d normally expect this time of year, Baragona said.

EMCC also saw its enrollment tumble after COVID-19 hit. Last fall, the college’s executive cabinet used some of its HEERF funds to try and fortify its three campuses against the virus, investing heavily in sanitation supplies, masks, plastic dividers and hands-free door handles. The executive cabinet hoped these safety measures would bring students back to campus, but enrollment “did not rebound as much as we had hoped,” said Julia Morrison, EMCC’s director of external relations.

Morrison and other EMCC cabinet members looked for other ways stimulus funding could be used to increase enrollment and eventually settled on offering free classes.

“Historically, community college students are facing some financial barriers, and that has all been heightened by the pandemic,” Morrison said. “We wanted to craft an initiative that helps students where they’re at.”

The increased financial aid is also removing barriers that existed for some before the pandemic. Candace Bradley, a single mother, dropped out of community college in 2015 because she didn’t have enough time or money to be a full-time student and provide for her son.

Bradley has wanted to finish earning her associate’s degree ever since, but going back to school meant taking out loans. Bradley had already paid off the student debt from her first go at college, but the process was so stressful that she wasn’t willing to put herself in debt again.

The combined boons of the direct payments from the stimulus bills and the HEERF financial aid have changed that. She’s applied for admission at Hinds and plans to register for the maximum 12 credit hours of HEERF covered courses to get the most bang for her buck.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” Bradley said. “Something like this just doesn’t happen for people like me.”

Registration is still open at NEMCC and EMCC; neither schools are limiting the number of students they accept this summer term. Cathy Hayden, the director of publications and media liaison at Hinds, said the college has signed up “all the students we want right now” after opening summer registration on April 12.

At EMCC, Morrison is looking forward to seeing students back on campus. Teachers have reported being stopped at church or in meetings by community members asking about classes. The excitement around free classes has created “a new energy” after a traumatic year, she said.

“It almost feels a little bit like a rebirth,” Morrison said.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.