College students shudder at thought of starting freshman year with online classes

Tribune Content Agency

SAN DIEGO — Katie Quis loves San Diego State University and hopes to be a freshman there this fall. But she may end up 1,300 miles away, strolling the hilly paths of the University of Kansas.

She’s decided to go to whichever school announces first that it will welcome students on campus rather than making them stay home and take courses online to avoid the novel coronavirus.

“I want the full freshman experience — going to football games, rushing a sorority, being around people my age, learning to be independent,” said Quis, a senior at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego.

“I don’t want to pay to take classes online from my house.”

Like other students, she’ll be lucky if either school throws open its doors.

The cherished tradition of packing a suitcase and heading off to college for your freshman year has been scuttled by the coronavirus, which has shut campuses nationwide, forcing them to offer courses online.

Schools are suddenly reeling from unexpected costs, ranging from housing refunds to helping some students pay for flights home. The pandemic has already cost the University of San Diego nearly $17 million.

UC San Diego has temporarily lost $40 million in funding because many of its health and medical labs had to close or curtail operations. The slowdown also is affecting other areas of campus. In one particularly bizarre moment, a researcher moved nine cockroaches into her home because she couldn’t study them in her lab.

UC San Diego also has delayed announcing a $5 million deal to name the school’s sports arena because intercollegiate athletics have been placed on hold.

And the campus might find it hard to hold on to international students, who pay more than twice what California residents are charged for attending one of the nation’s 10 largest research schools.

This is the biggest cataclysm in the history of American higher education, one that could wipe out the sight of parents fighting back tears as they drop their kids off at college.

No one knows how long it will last. But college-bound freshmen are clear about this: They are not digging it.

You’ll hear them say that watching a college football game in your parent’s living room will never compare to doing it with a gaggle of new friends in a crowded stadium on the edge of a campus that’s new to you.

Students also will tell you that cramming for an exam in the flirty world of UC San Diego’s Geisel Library is a thing you remember. Doing it from home, amid the numbing chatter of siblings, is something you try to forget.

As for online classes, which cost as much as in-person courses … well, don’t even go there.

Nearly 3 million students will enroll as freshmen this fall across the country. Most are members of Generation Z, the first generation that’s always had access to the Internet, social media and cellphones.

They’re big on Instagram and streaming. But many students say they dislike online learning, calling it dull, lonely and too taxing on their attention spans.

They ask: Who wants to pay the same price for watching a psych class on Zoom when they can do it in a lecture hall filled with your peers?

The answer is few. But students will have little choice in the matter.

Five weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order, there’s no sense of when it will be lifted. That has forced UCSD, SDSU, USD, Cal State San Marcos, and Point Loma Nazarene University to stick with online courses through the summer.

The schools, which serve 100,000 students, might have to do the same in the fall. The coronavirus hasn’t been slain. A vaccine isn’t near. And there might be a second wave of infections in the fall.

Cal State Fullerton, which has about 40,000 students, responded last week by saying it will likely offer only “virtual” classes in September.

Other schools haven’t rushed forward to do the same.

University leaders cringe at the possibility of waving students back to campus in the fall only to have to send them home if the virus flares up. It was controlled chaos when San Diego County’s five major universities sent about 20,000 students packing last month.

But there’s still a lot of interest in salvaging September, especially for freshmen. Educators say the first six weeks of the school year are filled with the sort of socialization that can determine if a student succeeds.

Each year, USD sends groups of students on a camping trip in Joshua Tree — an idea that will stay on the table if the school can figure out how to enforce social distancing in the desert.

It’s also exploring whether it can minimize the risk of infection by reducing the number of students in dorms, making them stay 6 feet apart, and possibly staggering their use of restrooms.

USD President James Harris III wants to make things work, but he’s circumspect.

“We’re preparing to bring students back in the fall — but we might not be allowed to,” said Harris, who has frozen wages on campus and personally taken a 15% pay cut.

“It’s difficult to plan for a variety of scenarios four months away when we don’t know what we will be allowed or capable of doing.”

His frustration is shared by Albert Pisano, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.

“How do you teach students teamwork if they can’t get together?” Pisano asked.

PLNU President Bob Brower feels something similar: “This is a relationship-driven place. So much happens just encountering people on campus or in class. That’s just more difficult right now.”

The moment is wearing on people. “Every day is a marathon,” said Adela de la Torre, president of SDSU.

Tough timesThe situation has put freshmen in a bind.

The deadline for accepting admission at UCSD, SDSU, and USD is May 1. CSUSM and PLNU are giving students until June 1. Students could later switch to a different university if they find one that’s offering in-person classes.

But many students wouldn’t be to afford the cost of suddenly shifting to another school which, in some cases, could be far from home. Educators say students are more likely to stay close to home and many will take basic requirement classes at community colleges, which charge a fraction of the price of four-year schools.

Educators also that say some students won’t return, crimping school revenues. It also could make it harder for students to graduate in a timely way.

SDSU, CSUSM and USD are thinking about reducing the number of students they let in to large classes to allow enough space for social distancing. It’s called “de-densifying.”

That could protect people’s health. But a school might not be able to offer enough sections of a course to serve all of its students. That, in turn, could lengthen the time it takes to earn a degree, which makes it more costly.

No one expects the state to bail out the public schools. The unemployment rate is soaring. Tax revenue is plummeting.

Private schools also will have to fend for themselves. And the picture is grim.

“I believe we need to plan for a negative financial impact on the university that likely will exceed $30 million,” Harris said in a message to the USD community last week.

“To put this in perspective, at the peak of the 2007-2009 recession, the negative financial impact to USD was approximately $10 million.”

End gameThe situation has left some students asking if taking a gap year is the answer.

But many of the traditional gap-year activities — backpacking in Europe, volunteering in a foreign country — would be tough to do. Airlines have slashed international flights. Many foreign hotels aren’t open. There are few places to pick up a job to cover expenses.

“I’d urge students not to think of this as an alternative,” said Lynn Mahoney, president of San Francisco State University. “What you can do with a gap year is limited. If you’re just sitting home you might as well be connected with (a university) virtually.

“Forty% of my students come from the lowest income levels in the state. A kid like that who doesn’t come to school right away may never get here. It won’t become a gap year, it will be a missed opportunity at upward mobility.”

But universities have to spice up the online experience to keep students plugged in.

“There are more distractions when you’re at home,” said TJ Griggs, a senior at SDSU. “You can eat, look at your phone. You get bored and forget school is there. You have to be really dedicated to do it right.”

Mackenzie Stafford, an SDSU freshman, said, “It’s easier to raise your hand in person and bounce ideas off other people. It’s more nerve wracking to do it online.”

Andrew Carrillo of Chula Vista agrees.

“My professors have been really good at moving online,” said Carrillo, a junior at San Francisco State. “But face-to-face discussion in a classroom is the foundation of a good college education.”

Genavieve Koenigshofer of San Clemente has found that to be true as she prepares for her freshman year at UCSD.

“My phone lets me stay in contact with friends and get homework done quickly,” Koenigshofer said. “But nothing replaces being in the same place at the same time with people.

“We have an innate need to be with others.”


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