On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the UC Board of Regents is scheduled to have a critical vote on President Janet Napolitano’s proposed five-year budget plan, which includes, in the absence of significant increases in state funding, 5 percent annual increases in tuition. Not surprisingly, this proposal has already received extraordinarily strong responses from the media, Sacramento, students and the general public. Much of the response has, in my view, been based on misinformation. Interestingly, there has been little discussion of the likely impact of the 5 percent tuition increases on the economic and ethnic diversity of our undergraduate student body.
The effects of tuition increases on diversity are counterintuitive due to the complexity of our financial aid system. The most important single fact for us at UC Berkeley is that because of the way that we constructed our Middle Class Access Plan, only California students whose family incomes exceed $150,000 ever have to pay the tuition increases — of course, through its Cal Grant program, the state also would be expected to pay the increases for those students who qualify for Cal Grants. What is the situation for our low-income students? Because of the Cal Grant program and the Blue and Gold Guarantee, they pay no tuition at all. Part of their other expenses — food, housing, travel, books, etc. — are covered primarily by Federal Pell Grants, the one-third return to aid of tuition, and scholarships. If tuition does not increase, concomitantly, the return to aid does not increase. But the students’ expenses do, so frozen tuition means ever-increasing debt for low-income students.
Who are these students, and what are their ethnic backgrounds? I only have data for the system as a whole, courtesy of Pamela Brown, but these will be closely similar to those for UC Berkeley specifically. Who will pay more if the regents approve the Napolitano plan? Systemwide, undergraduate students whose families earn more than $150,000 annually are 47 percent white, 41 percent Asian and 12 percent underrepresented minorities. Who will pay less for their educations than they would otherwise if the regents approve the tuition increases? A good measure of this is Pell Grant recipients who are 41 percent underrepresented minorities, 41 percent Asian and 18 percent white. Clearly, the vast majority of our underrepresented minority undergraduate students will face ever-increasing financial challenges including increasing debt if the regents do not approve the tuition increases. This situation is even more dire for our undocumented students because they are ineligible for Federal Pell Grants and are therefore deeply dependent on return-to-aid for their living expenses.
Similar considerations apply to the staff. I will not go through the financial details here, but if the regents do not approve the Napolitano budget, our staff will be at risk — and the lowest-paid staff are always the most vulnerable.
In brief, diversity is one of our most prized values here at UC Berkeley. It is an essential part of our identity as a public university. Preserving, and indeed enhancing, our diversity requires the regents to approve Napolitano’s budget. Let us hope that they do so.
Robert Birgeneau is a former chancellor of UC Berkeley.