Some University of California campuses are charging new students hundreds of dollars for orientation sessions even though they take place entirely online.
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Matthew Villongco stopped by the UCLA campus to see his friends on a Thursday night during his first year of community college. An airy lounge surrounded by a glass wall, packed to the brim with students, caught his eye — The Study.
He’d imagined that people would be partying. Instead, he saw collaborative studying, an atmosphere filled with chatter, not students in their own headphone-induced bubbles.
That’s the scene Villongco remembered when he was accepted to UCLA as a transfer student and planning for orientation. He saw himself eating at the dining halls, staying in the dorms and walking down Westwood Blvd.
Residential orientations at universities like UCLA are typically jam-packed with activities — campus tours, advisors walking students through class registration and fairs where newcomers are introduced to student services, clubs and sports teams.
But Villongco and other incoming students won’t get that first taste of campus life: they’re being introduced to their universities via Zoom. And in some cases, they’ve paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege. It’s another college cost frustrating some students who already feel that campuses are overcharging them for a fall term that’s taking place largely online.
At UC Davis, students living on campus paid $480 for a five-day mandatory online orientation that begins today. Orientation costs at other UC campuses ranged from free at UC Merced and UC Irvine to $380 at UC Berkeley. At Cal State campuses that provided CalMatters with information about orientation costs, they ranged from $0 to $150, with freshmen paying an average of $64.63.
Students have pushed back against the cost. Isha Date, a third-year biomedical engineering major at UC Davis, started a petition signed by 2,625 people calling for a reduction in the orientation fee, which was originally set at $595.
“Six hundred dollars isn’t easy to get in normal circumstances — imagine doing that in COVID-19,” Date said. “There used to be an exemption form, but I had one friend who finished the form and got an email saying the program wouldn’t accept the forms.”
Catrina Wagner, director of New Student Academic Services at UC Davis, said via email that the university had worked to reduce the cost of this year’s orientation after moving it online, but that there was no opt-out option. The fee goes toward operating, labor and technology costs, Wagner said.
“All students will be billed the fee regardless of their level of engagement in Aggie Orientation,” Wagner said. “Orientation is mandatory because it’s designed as a foundational program to help prepare students for a successful first quarter at UC Davis.”
But Date said most of the information students receive during orientation is already available on college websites and Facebook pages.
“If it’s something class-related, the College of Engineering advisors have been helpful, or if it’s clubs, a lot of clubs from Davis have reached out to several transfer students,” Date said. “There’s a map of Davis online and you can find research and internship opportunities by googling the UC Davis internship and research page.”
The fact that so much information is available online — and the lack of engagement with a physical campus — has some students wondering what they’re paying for.
The backlash mirrors other concerns about charges for on-campus services — from recreation centers to parking — that have become unavailable during the pandemic. California campuses have eliminated some of those fees but continued to charge others, and two lawsuits filed against UC and CSU in April demanding reduced fees for spring terms are still pending.
UC Student Association president Aidan Arasasingham said that the association will advocate this year for the university to increase financial aid and reduce campus-specific fees.
“Fee discussions are always very complex, but what we and the university can’t argue against is that we’re heading into a long, protracted recession,” Arasingham said. “Students are in financial insecurity right now.”
Villongco said he asked his friends if attending orientation was worth it.
“They said stuff was longer than it had to be — meetings that dragged out for three hours could’ve been 30 minutes,” he said. “And that the scheduling part is the only reason to go to orientation.”
For Paige Walker, an incoming freshman at UCLA, not even scheduling went smoothly.
The website crashed on her when she registered for classes, she said, leaving her with an empty schedule despite hours of research on Rate My Professor and major websites.
Walker said her orientation was well-organized, but relied a lot on pre-recorded videos with little opportunity for live questions or social interaction.
Though she went through orientation with a group of 7 incoming first-years, she said that when her orientation leader put the group in a breakout room, they sat in silence for 30 minutes.
“I tried starting a conversation, but ended up spending ten minutes adding everyone on Snapchat and Instagram even though we’ll never talk to each other again,” she said.
A UCLA spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Frank Perez, an incoming transfer attending San Francisco State, said his classes and professors have been “wonderful” so far, but that his orientation was a “black stain on the record.”
“I can see it being a positive experience for freshmen, but for students who have already gone through community college … it does feel a little patronizing,” he said. “We went over how good the school was, but the only reason I went was to figure out how the class registration system worked.”
Perez said he ended up talking with a friend already at San Francisco State who explained the system in around 40 minutes.
He said that ultimately, orientation should just be covered by the tuition students have already paid.
That model is used by some private colleges — at the University of Southern California, according to Lisa Tomlinson Starr, director of the Office of Orientation Programs, the orientation cost can be covered by financial aid because it is assessed as part of students’ overall fees.
At the end of the day, the cost becomes another stressor for students, transfers or not, Perez said.
“When you enter a four-year college, money becomes a very important thing — many of these students aren’t in a position to have covered tuition without worry,” he said.
Salanga is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.