Who pays more? Who pays less?

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.

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  • Strykr32

    UC Berkeley’s Middle Class Access Plan and UC’s Middle Class Scholarship Program offer decidedly different benefits. The regents vote affects all UC students not just UC Berkeley students. The maximum benefits available under UC’s Middle Class Scholarship Program in 2014-2015 is $1,710 which does not even cover the return to aid forced charitable contribution to state resident students including undocumented students eligible for Cal Grant, Blue/Gold and its UC Grants. When fully implemented in 2017-2018, UC’s Middle Class Scholarship Program will cover 40% of tuition for those from families with incomes between $100,000 and the cutoff point for being eligible for Cal Grant, Blue/Gold and UC Grants which ranges between $80,000 and $95,000 depending on family size, and between 40% and 10% of UC tuition for those from families with income between $100,000 and $150,00 meaning most UC eligible middle class students will still be paying return to aid, a forced charitable contribution for which no tax write-off is available, to pay the living expenses of students eligible for Cal Grant, Blue/Gold and UC Grants. There is little information publicly available on the size of UC Grants; several years back on UC Berkeley’s Financial Aid website it was stated that the average UC Grant was $14,500 per year. Partly as a result of the convoluted and deceptive way of funding living expenses of students eligible for Cal Grant, a UC education has essentially been made unaffordable to students from middle income families making too much for the student to be eligible for Cal Grant, Blue/Gold and UC Grants; students from said families comprise the largest component of UC eligible students but only make up around 6% of UC students, the most underrepresented UC eligible students. Due to the UCOP removing public access to meaningful statistics several years ago and the elimination of the post secondary higher education commission such statistics are no longer readily available but we can surmise that the number of middle income students has further declined as tuition has further and significantly increased. It is illegal under California state law for Cal Grant A to be used to fund living expenses which is exactly what is taking place when Cal Grant A pays for Return to Aid which then funds UC Grants. If the people of California wish to fund the living expenses of state resident UC students below a certain income level, this should be done above board and not in a deceptive manner which then dries up funding that used to subsidize a UC education for all UC state resident students. State funding of UC has hardly declined at all; it is just that state funding is now concentrated on students eligible for Cal Grant and now pays living expenses rather than subsidizing the tuition of all UC state resident students. A major issue is that this assumes that parents who do or do not have the financial resources will pay for the education of a student of majority age who is independent under the tax code but not under the definition of independence used by FAFSA which essentially marks as dependent any undergraduate student under 24 years old who is single and has no dependents. Due to requirements for submitting parental tax forms which is beyond the control of the student, not even all low income state resident students are recipients of Cal Grant and UC Grants even if eligible. It is obvious that a UC education is not affordable to middle income students from families making less than $150,000 per year other than at Berkeley as such students are the most underrepresented and even for students from families making above $150,000, if the parents will not finance the education, why should the student then be denied an education for five years till attaining the age of 24 and financial independence under Fafsa. Under the old UC Master plan paradigm where a UC education was subsidized for all and living expenses were left to the student, a student in these circumstances could work his way through school but under this deceptive scheme used to fund living expenses of Cal Grant eligible students through Return to Aid and UC Grants, this is no longer possible.
    With regard to diversity, it is entirely unclear how a UC student of 41% Asian, 18% White, 41% Hispanic and African American, is more diverse than a mix that is 41% Asian, 47% white and 12% Hispanic and African American. It seems that diversity simply means more Hispanics and African Americans and somehow this is better because certain administrators prefer more Hispanics and African Americans to more Whites or Asians. The diversity of middle income students at UC and the diversity of the much larger segment of middle income students economically being denied a UC education and who comprise the largest segment of UC eligible students and are grossly underrepresented are not mentioned.