Pacific Lutheran University announced Aug. 3 that it is offering an additional year, tuition-free, to all currently enrolled full-time undergraduate students, known as a “PLUS” year.

Over this summer, university President Allan Belton said he and a leadership team spent hundreds of hours planning for what the return to school would look like in the fall.

“What we kept coming [back] to is no matter how the fall looked, it wasn’t going to be the experience students wanted or expected,” Belton said. So, the team asked, what if we extend students’ time at PLU?

Belton said the PLUS year is a way to guarantee a four-year on-campus experience for everyone, agreeing that it is kind of like a do-over, with COVID-19 making this year so different from what PLU students are used to.

PLU went fully online for the spring semester in March, shifting 700 class sections online overnight, Belton said. According to a PLU press release, athletic competitions, performances, academic conferences, and other events were canceled. These changes meant students missed out on opportunities that are normally a vital part of the college experience.

Connor Lemma is the vice president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee at PLU and a catcher on the baseball team. When classes went online in the spring, he found out at a baseball game. All games were canceled by the end of that week by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Lemma, along with other athletes will get an extra year of eligibility for sports with the PLUS year. When he found out about the opportunity, he said he was in shock and thought he read it wrong.

Gracie Anderson is the Associated Students’ president and is majoring in history and political science and minoring in anthropology.

“Now that we have the PLUS year, what does senior even mean?” Anderson joked about going into her senior year this fall.

There are lots of ways students can take advantage of the PLUS year. For rising seniors, Belton said it’s an opportunity to learn more, perhaps in an additional field, while the job market recovers from the effects of COVID-19.

“I can see it working for me in a lot of ways,” Anderson said of the PLUS year. Anderson recently decided to pursue a Ph.D. in United States history and feels the PLUS year would give her more time to do historical research as well as explore more options. With two majors and a minor, Anderson said it could also allow her to take a lighter load with the potential of an extra semester or year.

Belton has heard other students say the PLUS year will give them flexibility in case their plans change, which he said is exactly what it means to him. “To me, it was giving students the gift of time to figure things out,” Belton said.

For other students, Belton said they will have that opportunity to compete in sports or perform during the additional year. Also, students that may not have had the chance to study abroad could do so, without worrying about the additional cost. Belton said that is what he would do if he were a student at PLU.

Lemma said he is not sure whether he will take advantage of the extra year. As a rising junior, he has two more years at PLU, in which he will complete three majors, math, philosophy, and Hispanic studies, and a Holocaust and genocide studies minor. But he said having the flexibility of the PLUS year shows how much the university cares about its students.

“It just affirmed the reasons that I went to PLU in the first place for the community of care and how genuinely they want people to succeed and go on and do great things,” Lemma said.

Anderson also emphasized the caring nature of the university. “The plan itself is a total testament to the community of care on our campus,” she said.

Belton agreed with that, and said in why he wanted to do this, “This is all about the fact that we are a community of care. So, let’s care for our students in a way that is unique to PLU.”

“The kind of connections we make with our peers, with our professors, are so valuable, and are enhanced when we’re able to meet in person,” Anderson said, thinking of how students will have the opportunity for more in-person interactions during their PLUS year.  Anderson said these connections have been important to her experience at PLU.

While Anderson said that it will depend on each student whether they take advantage of the PLUS year, she said that knowing you have the cushion of an additional year is nice.

Belton said he hopes as many students take advantage of this opportunity as possible.

And Lemma said if he does use the PLUS year, it will be nice to have another “great PLU kind of year,” where he’ll be able to do some of his favorite things like have dinner with the baseball team or lead a student group on an outdoor excursion through the outdoor recreation program on campus.

For the fall, PLU is planning on a blended learning approach. Anderson explained that her classes will mostly be online but then she will have some in-person meetings with small groups and her professors. Lemma has two classes which will meet in person, and the rest will be virtual. Belton said they are prepared to continue this model into spring if needed, and that was one of the reasons they decided on offering the extra PLUS year, as opposed to only a semester.

While Belton said he and his team pursued many options, including the discussion of this year being discounted, they felt that giving students a discounted year without the full experience of being at PLU did not make sense.

Belton, whose background is in corporate finance, said the decision does not add expense to the university, as most of the students who take part in the PLUS year wouldn’t have been earning revenue for the school at that time anyway, as they would have already finished their four years. Any additional expense will come from the need to add faculty and staff because of more students in attendance, Belton said.

If needed, Belton said this offer would be an ongoing extension, if the campus continues to be affected by COVID-19 in the 2021-22 school year.

Since graduate students’ programs are more time-based and harder to extend for a year, Belton said they are offering all current graduate students $1,000 in continuing education credits.