Nearly empty

A nearly empty lecture hall on UW-Madison's campus.

As University of Wisconsin System students grapple with the realization that most of their classes will again be online this fall, many hold out hope for some form of tuition relief to offset what they see as an inferior learning experience.

UW-Madison student Brielle Schnowske enrolled in five courses this fall semester, two of which include a weekly face-to-face discussion. The rest of the incoming senior’s coursework will be online, which she described as the “right call” to limit the spread of COVID-19. But like most every college student, she wants a break in tuition because she said her online classes this spring were nowhere near the quality she experienced in her face-to-face classes.

“I think one of the biggest parts of college is obviously meeting people in class and engaging with others, but also being able to talk to the professor before or after lecture to ask questions,” she said. “I think that adds a lot to the experience, because otherwise I feel like I could have been doing online classes that are way cheaper somewhere else.”

Four UW campuses, including the two largest, Madison and Milwaukee, plan to offer more than 50% of their courses entirely online this fall.

Students’ calls for a tuition cut are growing louder, but there is no indication that administrators will budge.

System spokesman Jack Jablonski said campuses will continue to deliver a high-quality learning experience based on the tuition rates set by the Legislature.

Even without offering students a small tuition refund, the pandemic has pushed campus budgets to the brink of financial crisis. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank last week estimated losses will top $150 million, a number that will likely grow because Gov. Tony Evers asked for $250 million in cuts among state agencies over the next year. UW-Milwaukee projects a $35-$40 million net loss that would be the largest single-year negative impact in university history.

University leaders point to the quick pivot their campuses had to make in the spring, moving thousands of classes online in a matter of days. This time around, with several months to prepare, classes will be different, officials say.

At UW-Madison, instructors are spending their summer working with experts in curriculum design and technology to create engaging courses that meet learning objectives, university spokesman John Lucas said. For example, a dozen faculty and staff worked full-time for six weeks to re-design two of the university’s largest classes, Chemistry 103 and 104, for online learning.

And delivering instruction remotely hasn’t saved the university any money, UW-Madison Provost John Karl Scholz said in a blog post published Friday. Fixed costs, such as faculty salaries, remain while the campus has also had to invest in new technology and software.

Peer universities haven’t reduced their tuition rates, he said. He also discouraged students from delaying enrollment, except in unique circumstances, because those who drop out or delay may never finish college.

“In these uncertain, difficult times, the economic value of an outstanding college degree will only increase,” Scholz wrote.

‘Half the experience’

A sense of resignation clouds students’ academic expectations for the coming semester.

“It is my senior year, so I’m taking the most high-level, specialized classes for my major, so I’m definitely let down that I can’t get the most fulfilling experience,” said Schnowske, who also saw her spring study abroad program in Rome cut short. “We all have to adjust, and it’s not the best, but I’m just going to try to see the bright side and make the most of my senior year through all this.”

Incoming juniors are relieved by where they fall in the class lineup. Even if COVID-19 disrupts their entire 2020-21 school year, they are hopeful a vaccine will emerge by the time senior status sets in.

Junior nursing major Ella Greenhalgh was disappointed to learn all five of her classes this fall will be online. With hospitals still not accepting students for clinical rotations, she worries about her level of preparedness when she eventually enters the nursing field.

“We’re paying for the UW experience where we’re being exposed to so much, and now a lot of that is taken away,” she said.

For many students, particularly those accumulating thousands of dollars in debt, they simply expect more for what they’re paying.

“We’re getting half the experience, if that,” said Madeleine Freitag, an incoming UW-Madison junior studying graphic design. She enrolled in two online classes and two face-to-face courses this fall.

The need for a tuition reduction came up in every interview with 16 UW-Madison students over the past week. Other concerns that students mentioned include:

• Many students object to the university charging fees for services that are either not available to them or limited, such as access to gyms and the Wisconsin Union.

• The overwhelming majority said the quality of their online classes this spring was less rigorous. Some attributed this to professors’ lack of familiarity with technology while others said the nature of the situation elicited more compassion from instructors. An optional pass/fail grading policy also played into the learning dynamic, an approach not being offered this fall.

• Students found classes where they tuned in to a live lecture to be more engaging, but this format posed bigger technology barriers than pre-recorded, self-paced lessons.

• Several students wondered when the libraries would reopen because working from their apartment or house presented problems related to focus, motivation and unreliable internet. Others are hopeful that office hours and tutoring services return.

Some of UW-Madison’s libraries will be open through appointment with limited hours, but Lucas said students should plan to do studying in their apartments or dorm rooms as much as possible.

As for complaints about courses, he said UW-Madison takes feedback seriously and always tries to improve the learning experience. Overall, however, he said surveys showed student satisfaction with online learning, given the circumstances of the pandemic.

Campus breakdown

System officials provided the Wisconsin State Journal with a campus-by-campus breakdown detailing the percentage of fall classes that will be offered online, face-to-face or a mix of the two.

The data provide a snapshot of universities’ plans a few weeks out from the start of the semester, though the constantly changing number of local COVID-19 cases could affect these figures.

UW-Madison plans for 55% of its fall courses to be delivered online, 37% in person and 8% a hybrid combination, according to the data. All classes with more than 100 students and many with 50 or more will be delivered online.

At Madison Area Technical College, 70% of classes this fall will be delivered online. Another 7% will be face-to-face and 23% are a hybrid of the two formats.

Edgewood College plans to offer nearly all of its fall courses in person while allowing both students and faculty the flexibility to join classes remotely depending on their individual circumstances. The college’s small class sizes makes that delivery format possible, spokesman Ed Taylor said.

State Journal reporter Anna Walters contributed reporting.

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