If education is an investment, Randy Schekman’s has more than paid off.
Schekman paid exactly zero tuition dollars — plus an additional $40 in fees and $400 in living costs per quarter — for his undergraduate years at UCLA in the 1960s. It was at the University of California’s flagship Southern California campus that Schekman laid the groundwork for an illustrious career in biological research and teaching. Half a century later, Schekman won his profession’s most prestigious award, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for his work uncovering the machinery that regulates the transport and secretion of proteins in cells.
Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley since 1976, has become a champion of sorts for public higher education since receiving his award in October. His career spans decades, yet he says it all began during his undergraduate years at UCLA, which were bolstered by extensive public support for higher education in the form of low costs.
Today’s in-state students, meanwhile, shell out a little more than $12,000 in tuition — which jumps to more than $30,000 per year when living costs and other fees are factored in — to receive the same education and opportunities that jumpstarted Schekman’s career.
“Seeing tuition rise the way it has, has driven home how important UC was when education was essentially free and what we’ve lost because of these huge increases,” Schekman said in an interview with The Daily Californian in December.
In times of rising tuition and dwindling state support, five UC Berkeley students found different ways to pay for their education. Read their stories here.
In public, he has bemoaned what he sees as shifting cultural values that no longer prioritize education.
“People used to think of higher education as a public good, and it’s turned into a private commodity where people are expected to make their own investment,” he said.
This investment is no chump change.
UC tuition has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. In 1990, the state funded 78 percent of the total cost of education per student. Today, the state covers just 39 percent of student education costs.
It is perhaps no surprise that students go to extreme lengths to pay these costs. At about $1 trillion, student loan debt nationwide is now more than the gross domestic product of nearly 185 individual countries, including Sweden, Taiwan and Norway.
At UC Berkeley, student loan debt is slightly lower than the nationwide average — $17,000 per student compared to nearly $30,000 — likely thanks to various campus and UC-wide programs implemented to ease the sting of rising costs. While the university has worked to alleviate a growing lack of state and federal support for higher education, the effects of this disinvestment on individual students remain stark.
For some students, an increase in tuition or fees means leaning more on their parents for funds. For others — those without financial benefactors, guardians or family to help ease the costs — paying their way through college is an entirely different game.
While many students are still able to finance an education on their own, their efforts are a far cry from Schekman’s experience. The Nobel laureate paid for his education simply with savings from summer and part-time jobs.
“I don’t remember students going into debt back then,” Schekman said. “I could not have imagined what I would have thought back then if I knew this was going to happen.”
“My world fell apart”
Sophomore Anthony Abril woke up on a couch the first day of Welcome Week freshman year. It was in a temporary shelter offered by a cousin after he left his parents’ home, an environment he considered unstable and toxic.
Leaving his home was a move for his survival, Abril says — one he finally took after years of abuse from his parents.
But the sense of liberation he felt in the days after his departure from home was quickly replaced with a growing sense of dread as the first day of classes approached. About a week before school began in August 2012, Abril was contemplating the best way to continue his education — whether that was at UC Berkeley — and, if he wanted to stay on the campus, how to afford it. His parents had long since cut off what little financial support they had provided him.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pay for college,” he said. “I didn’t have a job — I didn’t know really what I was going to do.”
His options were few. He decided to defer his admission a semester and attempt to pursue a different, more complicated option: to appeal to be recognized by UC Berkeley as a financially independent individual.
As a financially independent student, Abril would be recognized by the campus as not having any monetary support from his parents or other guardians and would receive financial aid to defray costs. He would need to prove that his parents were not supporting him financially and would not in the future.
He was one of fewer than 20 students who appeal to UC Berkeley each year to become financially independent. On a campus of nearly 26,000 undergraduates, about 10 percent of students — roughly 2,500 — are financially independent, the majority of whom do not undergo the appeals process, as they are already recognized as independent by the state. Financially independent students include orphans, wards of the state such as foster youth, those over 24 years old, married students and individuals with children.
In other cases, students under 24 years old and with family can be considered financially independent if they prove, like Abril, that they would be safer if independent from their guardians.
During his deferred semester, Abril enrolled in community college classes and worked full time at a mall cupcake store while putting together his appeal to be deemed financially independent. Abril explained his family situation in the appeal, writing all the grievances and abuses in his family’s history and detailing a host of traumatic experiences over time, complete with official references, such as notes from licensed therapists familiar with the situation.
He shared three different documents with the departments of financial aid, housing and admissions, but they were preemptively unapproved after one of his appeals to one department was mixed up with that of another branch.
“My world fell apart — I had a total mental breakdown,” Abril said. “At this point, I was already working and attending community college, but my life was in limbo.”
He quickly contacted the department and explained the mistake: He had submitted an earlier, shorter draft of the appeal.
In October 2012, his appeal was approved. Abril cried when he heard the news.
After starting school, Abril supported himself financially with a job at the Cal Calling Center and with the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, a UC plan introduced in 2009 that now fully covers tuition and fees for individuals or families with incomes below $80,000.
Out of pocket, Abril covers $8,600 of his education costs, as well as his living expenses. Though his income from his job helps, Abril has still had to borrow about $10,000 in loans, an amount he expects will double by the time he graduates.
Every year, Abril must renew his financially independent status and show that his circumstances regarding his relationship with his parents remains unchanged. He hardly lives in financial security now, but it is a step up from where he was just a year ago.
“I’m only afforded this security because I’m taking out loans (for living costs) and taking on debt,” Abril said. “But I keep in mind my gratitude, because I came from a place with a lot of insecurity.”
Editor’s note: Flagship public universities across the United States give varying amounts of financial aid to their students. When compared to 12 comparable schools — similar in student size and academic prestige among other factors — UC Berkeley costs more on average for in-state students and hands out a smaller percentage of financial aid to its students.
Below is an interactive graphic exploring the differences in financial support among public universities in the United States. Click up to four circles on the graph for a side-by-side comparison of where each university’s average financial aid package comes from.
The interactive graphic was built and designed by Nicholas Hardison-Moschopoulos.
The university steps in
Abril has largely been supported by the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, a policy to encourage low-income students to continue applying in the wake of skyrocketing tuition and fees.
About two-thirds of financially independent students are eligible for aid under the Blue and Gold plan. Independent students receive an average of $30,700 in financial aid and are expected to contribute $8,600 to their education costs, as all students are.
At UC Berkeley, students receive financial aid solely based on “need.” Notably, the campus refrains from offering merit-based aid, according to Anne De Luca, the associate vice chancellor of admissions and enrollment.
“Every one of our students might be an honor student at another campus, so we don’t want to make a distinction that says some students just get money for their test scores, for example,” De Luca said. “Every student here is already past the bar in terms of being meritorious.”
The only merit-based institutional aid is offered through the Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship, which is given to high-performing student applicants across the UC system.
For financially independent students receiving aid from the Blue and Gold plan, the biggest problem is covering living costs and the $8,600 student contribution fee, the minimum amount the university expects students to contribute to their education.
UC Berkeley junior and financially independent student Diamond Jerry works about 25 hours per week, on top of a full course load, to pay these fees. In almost every spare hour between class during the fall semester, Jerry worked at the Cal Calling Center, where she was a supervisor.
She has been on her own since 2011, when her mother passed away from cancer in Jerry’s senior year of high school. Though her father is still alive, he has long since stopped supporting the family. When she applied for financial aid, Jerry classified herself as financially independent.
In addition to financial aid, Jerry, who is majoring in public health, receives a Pell Grant and a federal scholarship. She tries to stay away from loans but has taken out minimal amounts to pay for things such as a laptop.
“Working as a student may seem hard, but that’s what life’s going to be like when you get out of college,” Jerry said. “It’s a good real-world experience and makes you appreciate the things that you have, because you’re paying for them.”
Beyond financial aid, independent students have other resources available to them, such as the Cal Independent Scholars Network. In particular, the scholars network aims to support former and present foster youth, who on default are considered independent by the state. The scholars network helps to provide a support network and offer advice these students may not have or receive otherwise.
The program has been integral in helping UC Berkeley junior Jamie Martinez, a former foster youth, navigate the campus.
A recent transfer to UC Berkeley, Martinez, like Jerry, is covered by the Blue and Gold plan. He pays the student contribution fee and living costs with savings from the income he received while working during community college as well as with loans. He roughly estimates that he’ll graduate with student loan debt ranging from $15,000 to $20,000.
“I’m really trying not to focus on money,” Martinez said. “Education is an investment, and it does suck to owe money. But I think I’m going to do really well with whatever I pursue. As long as I do what I want and am helping people, it’ll be fine.”
But for Martinez, what matters more than financial security is the support network provided by the scholars network.
There, he can find information regarding financial aid and talk to other students who have been through the foster system. The program is his home away from home and a community to which he can turn for advice.
Is the university doing enough?
Both Martinez and Jerry said they are not sure what more the university could do to support them and other financially independent students.
But others say there is plenty to be done.
While the Blue and Gold plan covers a number of low income students, the plan has been criticized as overselling its impact. About 1,700 financially independent students are eligible for the plan.
When it was introduced, the plan was heralded by former UC President Mark Yudof as evidence of the university’s strong commitment to an affordable education. Yet, between Cal Grants and institutional aid, many lower- and middle-income families already pay no tuition.
For example, a low-income family of three that made an income below $80,000 — which would qualify them for the Blue and Gold plan — could access Cal Grant A, a state grant that already fully covers tuition and fees for the UC and CSU systems.
In a 2010 open letter addressed to Yudof, Robert Meister, former president of the council of UC faculty associations, sharply criticized the plan, which he called a “public relations gimmick.”
He said the plan would simply put the burden of rising tuition on those with incomes just above the policy’s cutoff. Students are being asked to earn or borrow more for their education, Meister said, while the program itself ignores other factors that could determine financial need outside of family income.
“(The university) is still marketing income inequality to students as its most important product: it now expects all students to pay more for an ever-shrinking chance of reaping the ever-growing rewards that our economy makes available to the few,” he wrote.
Debbie Cochrane, research director of the Institute of College Access and Success, echoed some of Meister’s sentiments and pointed to the importance of a well-structured financial aid program. The self-help amount students are expected to pay is simply too high for equal access, she said.
“Any college or system that wants to make college affordable has a limited pool of dollars,” Cochrane said. “They can choose how to spend those dollars — do you give more financial aid to a smaller group or less to more? The UC has made efforts to help more students be more financially eligible, but it doesn’t mean that students aren’t still struggling.”
On average, lower-income students who are not officially financially independent still borrow more funds than their higher-income counterparts, despite the fact that they may receive more financial aid.
Many of these students are financially independent in that they do not receive monetary help from their parents but are still viewed as dependents by the university.
One such student is sophomore Jason Fauss. Though he’s not considered financially independent by UC Berkeley, he is not receiving monetary support from his parents. He is partly covered by funds from the Middle Class Access Plan, a campus-specific plan that aids middle-income families and covers the rest of his education and living costs with wages and loans.
Fauss works a number of jobs and keeps his finances under close watch. He works at the Berkeley Wireless Research Center and has scholarships awarded by his fraternity as well as scholarships from the Democratic National Committee, where he interned last summer. Each year, he takes out eight to 10 thousand dollars in student loans.
He had known since high school that if he wanted to attend college, he would have to pay out of his pocket.
“If you write down everything you spend per day and add it up, it’s going to be a lot more than what you expect,” Fauss said. “You have to plan out what you’re going to spend and when and where.”
By the time he graduates in spring 2016, Fauss estimates he’ll rack up about $25,000 to $30,000 in debt, which is on-par with the nationwide average. This debt can be intimidating, he said, especially because his major, German, will not necessarily guarantee him a lucrative job after graduation. Fauss may defer graduate school to work or to join a program such as Teach for America. But, like Schekman, he views his education as an investment, despite the risk.
“College is a time to find what you love and are passionate about,” Fauss said. “Some people find that in their major, and I did. I’m not going to sacrifice $30,000 on loans for something I won’t want to do for the rest of my life.”
Fauss, at least, has access to loans. Undocumented students, who number about 300 students at UC Berkeley, cannot apply for loans.
These students have access to limited financial aid, namely through the state Dream Act, which doles out grant money — divided from the leftover funds after Cal Grants are given out — to students who meet certain requirements.
Gladys Castro, a senior majoring in political science and an undocumented student, says the funds she accrues from the Dream Act cover her tuition but little else. Her living costs are a hefty burden without support from her parents or temporary relief through loans.
During her time at UC Berkeley, Castro has worked nine jobs — odds and ends, such as babysitting, transcribing and tutoring. Like Abril, she withdrew for a year to work while attending a community college.
Her biggest sadness is that she has worked so much during her time at UC Berkeley, often averaging 35 hours per week, on top of full course loads.
“I’m really young to be having this much responsibility,” Castro said. “I’m living on my own, I pay my own bills, I pay my rent. That independence — I’m really proud of myself for that. I feel like not everybody could do it.”
A dire future
Castro is likely right — not everyone is willing to invest long hours, high stress and crippling debt in order to obtain an education whose returns are perhaps no longer so great.
Yet many still believe in the value of that return. For financially independent students such as Abril, Jerry and Martinez, a UC Berkeley education is not just a diploma or a title. It is a promise for a life of opportunities that once seemed unattainable.
After graduation, Abril hopes to research education policy, while Jerry aims to work in health care. Martinez endeavors to attend law school.
But if the state continues to disinvest in its institutions of higher learning, these opportunities — the same ones that launched Randy Schekman’s career — may become increasingly out of grasp.
“(The UC education) has gone from being a good to a private commodity,” Schekman said. “That’s the fundamental change that has happened. This used to be an investment for the future by the state. Now, it’s your own personal investment for your future.”