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UC Irvine freshman Rose Oganesian understands the public health reasons to switch from in-person to online courses at universities across California during the coronavirus crisis. But she doesn’t want to get charged the same price.
So she has organized an online petition campaign that seeks at least a partial tuition refund for students, whether they start their spring quarter later this month, as she will, or already are in the midst of spring semester. Oganesian and others think the tuition for UC Irvine’s spring quarter should be cut in half. That would mean a possible refund of at least $2,100 in UC systemwide costs — perhaps more if campus fees are included.
“It’s not fair that we should be charged full tuition. We pay money for going to classes, seeing professors and having one to one meetings during office hours,” said Oganesian, a biology major from Los Angeles. The online experience is a lesser one and should not cost as much as regular classes, she said, adding: “If I had wanted to go to an online school, I would have done that.”
More than 6,700 people have signed the online petition being posted by change.org. It originally was aimed at UC Irvine, but was amended to include all public campuses in California.
But, so far, the students don’t seem to be convincing UC, the California State University or community colleges.
The petition also seeks refunds or discounts for university dorms and residences and dining plans along with mandatory fees for recreation and student centers that may go unused during this emergency period. Officials at both UC and CSU report that they are considering ways to refund some of those costs especially since many campuses are urging students to leave housing facilities if they have someplace safe to get to without further health risks.
But tuition itself is another matter.
UC Irvine spokesman Tom Vasich said there are no plans now to refund or reduce tuition. Even with online classes, students “will still be getting instruction from University of California instructors and it’s a University of California grade that counts toward their diploma,” he said.
The nine-campus UC system issued a statement that the university “will continue to charge tuition and mandatory system and campus-based fees for all enrolled students.” Even students from other states and nations who are charged much higher tuition will not receive discounts. Campuses can make their own decisions regarding other fees. And students will be allowed to cancel housing and dining contracts and receive a prorated refund, the statement said.
Tuition is the same for online and in-person courses at California public universities and most nonprofit private schools during the regular school year. The same practice can be found at colleges across the country. California college officials insist that the online classes provide the same material, ample opportunities for interaction with faculty and the same diploma credits as more traditional classes do even if the delivery methods are very different and some students and professors miss the face-to-face connections.
UC undergraduate tuition and mandatory systemwide fees for state residents total $12,570 a year, or $4,190 a quarter term (the calendar that seven UC campuses follow) and $6,285 a semester at Berkeley and Merced. Students from outside California face $43,000 annual tuition bills at UC.
At the 23-campus California State University campuses, all on the semester system, annual systemwide tuition and fees total $5,742 and are $2,871 per semester.
Campus fees can add more than $1,000 a year at both systems, while dorms and dining plans can be $15,000 a year extra.
At Cal State, tuition refunds or discounts are not being considered “at this point,” said spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp. All its campuses are transitioning to fully online education for various lengths of time, except the California Maritime Academy, the 1,051-student campus in Vallejo that focuses on oceanography, shipping and maritime engineering. “As of right now, the campuses are working diligently to the best of their abilities to provide the highest levels of instruction. We are not in the position where a tuition refund would be appropriate to discuss,” he said.
Campuses are offering help to students who might not have a computer or need to upgrade to a tablet to be able to take the online courses. They are also keeping Wi-Fi services available on all campuses so students can potentially find spaces with enough safe social distances to take classes and study if need be, he said.
Michael Wiafe, president of the Cal State Student Association, representing students at all CSU campuses, said he opposes tuition refunds. “As long as students are able to access their course, regardless of their physical presence, I do not believe that is necessary and it would most likely have devastating impacts on the institution,” he said in an email response to EdSource questions. A loss of tuition revenues would especially hurt after what Wiafe, a senior at San Diego State, described as “the disinvestment in higher education over the past two decades.”
UC San Diego senior Anya Sinha has the opposite opinion. A U.S. citizen who was raised in India, she said she receives a $6,000 federal Pell Grant, but that her family has to pay the rest of the $43,000 tuition she is charged as an out-of-state resident. She signed the petition seeking a partial tuition refund because she feels online education is not as productive as regular classes. “I don’t see why I should be paying full price for online classes if you don’t get the same kind of learning,” she said. A psychology major and theater minor, she said she is particularly worried about how her theater classes, which are supposed to include live performances, can be conducted online.
As most of California’s community colleges plan to convert to online classes soon, efforts will be made to help students stay enrolled and continue their education, according to Paul Feist, statewide vice chancellor for communications. The cost per academic unit will remain $46 per academic unit whether the course is in-person or online, he said. But districts can reimburse fees for students who choose not to stay enrolled, and, he added, “we are working with the Department of Finance to explore additional measures to ensure reimbursement is available for all students who withdraw.”
Private colleges and universities in California appear to be preparing to refund students for unused housing and dining plans but not for tuition, whether classes go online or not. For example, at Pomona College, a policy states: “If students plan on completing their courses, we do not plan on refunding tuition and fees.” A Stanford University website posted this question and answer: “Will tuition be reduced since classes are online only? No, we are not going to reduce tuition.”
Coincidentally, the UC regents on Thursday are scheduled to discuss and possibly approve a plan that would raise tuition in the fall by $606, or 4.8 percent, for incoming freshmen from California and then more for the next four following freshmen classes. Current students would be exempted.
At CSU, some trustees have suggested in the past that a tuition hike might be needed but the agenda for their March 24 meeting does not include any such action.