Paying full tuition for online learning has some area college students fuming

UC San Diego
UC San Diego said last month that it plans to partly resume in-person classes this fall after the coronavirus pandemic forced classes online in the spring.

Irvin Yang is the kind of student UC San Diego cherishes.

He’s very smart. And he comes from China, which means he pays twice as much tuition as California residents. The money helps cover the university’s operating expenses, and students like him help give the La Jolla campus its international flair.

At the moment, though, the joy isn’t mutual.

Like other schools, UCSD shifted to online classes in the spring due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic — and is charging full tuition. Yang, a junior, hates it.

“Class now feels like watching a YouTube video — and that’s when professors are being responsible,” he said. “The lazy ones just make us watch recordings from years before.

“Without the excitement of sitting in a classroom and interacting with my professors and peers, I don’t see the point of getting up early to take class on time. We shouldn’t be paying full tuition for this.”

UC San Diego junior Irvin Yang says he's unhappy with the quality of the university's online classes.
UC San Diego junior Irvin Yang says he’s unhappy with the quality of the university’s online classes.

Not everyone is that biting. But with the coronavirus surging as the fall semester draws near, schools from San Diego to Boston are preparing to keep many or most of their courses online, an approach many students say is a pale, pricey facsimile of the classroom.

They describe the online world as a dehumanizing realm where it can be hard to communicate, socialize and collaborate. The criticism comes from savvy consumers ; most undergraduates are members of Generation Z, the first generation that’s always had the internet, cellphones and social media.

“You miss out on important body language that can cue understanding or misunderstanding,” said Jahfreen Alam, a UCSD senior. “Online classes focus more on just learning the material, whereas in-person classes provide the environment for engagement.”

The result is isolation, confusion and loneliness, some students say. And they’re livid that schools are charging full tuition, especially as the coronavirus has wiped out many of the jobs they — and their parents — would rely on to pay the bills.

The shift to online teaching happened so fast that it also caused problems for faculty, many which still exist. A new report by the University of California says some instructors experienced delays in getting the basic equipment needed to broadcast classes, such as good microphones and versatile webcams. Other problems were reported with things such as uploading course material and getting enough help designing classes.

UC San Diego senior Jahfreen Alam says she misses the social "extras" of life on campus.
UC San Diego senior Jahfreen Alam says she misses the social “extras” of life on campus.

The UC report quotes an unidentified professor as saying: “While I use polls, breakout rooms and chat, the level of interaction is just is not the same. Additionally, I am not getting to know my students like I have in the past. Students are rarely speaking to me before class or after class, as was normal when classes were taught in person.”

Another unidentified professor says in the June report: “I think that far less is being learned right now because our students are expected to attend classes that still have typical exams, paper assignments, etc., during a pandemic.

“We are in a crisis, and no amount of online maneuvering can ease the extreme anxiety ... that our students are experiencing.”

Others also are scrambling to adapt.

Faculty members at San Diego State University are taking online classes to learn how to teach online classes. A faculty report says they are primarily using aging teaching software that can be confusing and difficult to use. The University of San Diego is spending $1.5 million to improve technology in 125 classrooms for the sake of in-person and online instruction.

Students aren’t indifferent to the need to shift to digital learning. The online classes are “a necessary evil to keep our citizens safe and the curve of COVID flat,” said Hanaa Moosavi, a senior at UCSD.

But many students from UCSD to SDSU to Rutgers to the University of Chicago and University of Houston want a discount on tuition. Two Kansas State University students sued for refunds after the virus forced the school to go online.

Chances are, students won’t get the financial break they’re looking for, at least in the short term.

Universities are hemorrhaging money due to the virus. UCSD says it has already lost $150 million and will lose an additional $150 million to $200 million this summer.

Officials fear the situation could worsen if the Trump administration is allowed to prevent international students from staying in the United States if their schools offer only online courses due to the pandemic. Nearly 9,000 of UCSD’s 39,000 students are from other countries, mainly China. Last year, the campus brought in more revenue from non-California resident undergraduates than those from California.

California is suing the Trump administration to try to block the order.

UCSD said in June that it will attempt to partly resume in-person classes this fall, with about 30 percent of the courses conducted in person only. The rest will be online or a combination of online and in person.

UC San Diego says it will attempt to partly resume in-person classes this fall and will offer free and regular COVID-19 coronavirus testing to its 65,000 students, faculty and staff, a program that could cost up to $2 million a month.

USD, a private school, has lost $17 million, a figure that could almost double during the coming academic year, according to the university.

Schools also oppose tuition discounts because they believe online courses are the equivalent of classroom instruction and that they enable students to get what they really want — a degree.

USD issued a statement July 10 saying “the university is not considering a discount for tuition at this time.” Most California schools are taking a similar stand.

UCSD will charge California residents $14,480 in tuition for the coming academic year. Non-California residents will pay $29,754.

USD students, whether local or from afar, will pay $52,120.

Students are chafing at those prices not just because of online classes but because they’re losing out on many of the social activities that come with life on campus.

“The extras, the opportunities, the networking availabilities [are] what makes a specific school unique,” Alam said. “By taking classes online, I don’t have access to these extras or the same resources as I would if I were to be paying tuition for in-person classes.”

UCSD has worked in recent years to expand its social offerings. Schools nationwide have been doing the same. That trend is producing a reckoning, according to Garrett Broad, a communications professor at Fordham University in New York.

“It has led to a situation where a lot of college is closer to ‘summer camp’ for many students, focused on social interaction and fun as opposed to the core academic mandate that most universities were founded to realize,” Broad said.

“So when students are told that the university is going online, they realize that the summer camp aspect is over and they’re rightly mad because that’s what they think they are paying for.”

But the change may be temporary.

“Most colleges will return to teaching classes on campus after the pandemic is over,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of in Miami.

“They know that their Zoomification of college classes was a quick fix and not a permanent solution. Some may decide to start offering online education as an option, but they will need to invest more resources beyond just videotaping the lectures.

“Learning is difficult and interactive.” ◆