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The hustle and bustle that once dominated life on a college campus has been reduced to a hush during the pandemic, as the lion’s share of classes and interactions moved online. Yet that hasn’t stopped colleges across California from charging students for the services they no longer enjoy.
At San Diego State University, many of the landmarks of student life remain mostly or completely closed: the Aztec Student Union Center, the Malcolm A. Love Library, the Cal Coast Open Air Theatre, the Viejas Arena, the Aztec Recreation Center. Few buildings have reopened to students and only a fraction of the student body visits the campus regularly.
On March 1, SDSU re-welcomed around 2,800 students, or about 4 percent of all classes, back to campus after moving most courses online in late November amid rising COVID-19 rates in San Diego. Still, the trademark offerings of the college campus experience remain absent — studying in the library, cheering at games, attending lectures in a class full of students.
Despite that, the fees that students pay for many of these experiences remain in place. And in some cases, they’ve increased since the pandemic began. For the spring 2021 semester, which began Jan. 20, SDSU students paid nearly $1,000 each in campus fees — on top of the regular tuition that goes toward funding on-campus services, employee salaries, student events and athletics.
The year before, students paid $873 apiece in campus fees, and in fall semester 2021, students are expected to pay $1,197. Some of those fees tend to increase every year to compensate for inflating costs of higher education. But other fees that cover services ranging from the campus library, student governance, athletic centers and sports arenas have remained the same or increased despite the disruption to in-person services caused by the pandemic.
The changes have not gone unnoticed by students and parents. Some have demanded refunds from the university for fees that cover services they say most students cannot access. But the university maintains that the costs of running the campus, even with most students learning from home, are fixed and ongoing. A portion of the fees are earmarked on SDSU’s website for the long-term debt accrued through construction costs over the years.
“Students pay campus mandatory fees regardless of whether they are a full-time student, part-time student, online student or a student studying abroad — and even if they do not expect to ever use the programs or facilities they support,” Lainie Fraser, a media relations officer for the university, wrote in an email.
Rick Richards said he was initially surprised the university was still charging campus fees while students, including his freshman daughter, attend classes remotely. Now, he’s frustrated that the university has been unwilling to concede on the issue.
“It’s virtually impossible for students to take advantage of anything that they’re being charged for, especially while they’re attending class at home,” Richards said.
Richards said the university should discount the campus fees and tuition to compensate for students who have not been able to use the services the campus fees cover.
In September, one SDSU student started a petition that demanded the university refund certain campus fees and part of tuition to compensate for the lower quality of education and reduced services due to the pandemic. The change.org petition, directed at SDSU President Adela de la Torre, garnered more than 5,500 signatures as of early March.
SDSU did offer prorated refunds for certain fees in spring 2020, including parking, housing, dining and meal plans, but those fees are separate from the campus fees that students pay.
Armando Sepulveda, who sits on SDSU’s Campus Fees Advisory Committee, said he and other members of the Associated Students, a student group that organizes funding and programming on campus and represents the student body to the university, have been working since the beginning of the pandemic to transition student services to an online format. He said that students he talked to are satisfied with how those services have been adapted.
“There’s always room for improvement but I think for the time being we’ve done really well,” Sepulveda said.
But Sepulveda also admits that some services that students have paid for throughout the pandemic have yet to be provided online or in a hybrid format. The Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre and Viejas Arena, for example, are both facilities funded through student fees.
The Student Body Center Fee, which charged students $237 in spring semester 2021 and will increase by nearly $200 in the fall, covers construction bonds, maintenance and operations for the Aztec Recreation Center, Aquaplex, Viejas Arena and Aztec Student Union, but those facilities are only partially open with limited capacity and adjusted services.
The cost of annual bond payments for the facilities total around $9 million per year, Sepulveda said, and campus fees are used to pay those costs whether or not students use the facilities.
The Instructionally Related Activity Fee, the highest campus fee, funded dozens of in-person student programs in the 2019-20 school year, including conferences, competitions and travel. But after the pandemic hit, all programs that semester were canceled, yet the fees remained.
Each student paid $25 this semester in fees toward library services, but the building is closed apart from a book pick-up service and an outdoor study space.
Sepulveda pointed out that some portion of the campus fees were approved by previous SDSU classes, which current and future students are obligated to pay. Campus fees that fund the recreation center expansion, increased faculty members, student health services and library were either recommended by the Campus Fees Advisory Committee or voted on by the student body as far back as 2008.
SDSU isn’t the only university to face backlash over its policy on campus fees. A Sonoma State University student is suing the CSU system, which includes SDSU in its 23-school network, for refunds of student fees from the spring 2020 semester.
The University of California system has also been under fire over campus fees. A UC Davis student filed a similar class action lawsuit in May against the UC regents, alleging that the services students paid for in fees for in the spring 2020 quarter were never delivered.
That same semester, each UC student paid $376 in system-wide fees, in addition to campus-based fees that vary by location. Students at UC San Diego each paid about $1,300 in campus-based fees in spring 2020.
Erika Johnson, assistant director of community relations at UCSD, said tuition and campus fees cover ongoing costs at the university like financial aid, heath services and building maintenance and that campus services are available to students remotely.
“Tuition and mandatory fees are set by the regents for all UC campuses and, under the circumstances, will remain the same. Tuition and mandatory fees have been set regardless of the method of instruction and will not be refunded in the event instruction occurs remotely for any part of the academic year,” Johnson wrote in an email.
Not all students are dissatisfied with the universities’ handling of campus fees and services during the pandemic.
Tiffany Basrai is a nursing student at SDSU who is currently taking some classes in person. She said she understands that the university still has campus-related costs, even with fewer people around, but thought more could be done to ease students’ concerns.
“I feel like if there was better communication, I would be less upset about it and I think a lot of students would be too,” Basrai said.
SDSU students can formally request refunds from the university for tuition and campus fees, but only under “exceptional circumstances.” That could include students who were incorrectly charged, enrolled in a class that was later canceled or left due to military service.
For now, Sepulveda said campus fees go toward maintaining and expanding campus services, even if just for the fraction of students visiting campus or using online resources, and keeping Associated Students employees on payroll.
“We pay these fees to help out our fellow students, to help the students who are employed by Associated Students or the university and to help students who need the services that are being provided online,” Sepulveda said. “At the end of the day we do it because it’s the right thing to do. And if you’re going through financial hardship, I’m sorry. I really wish there was more that we can do.”