UC falsely describes tuition plan as ‘Robin Hood’ scheme

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Shufan Zhang/Staff

In the past decade, as tuition at the University of California has nearly doubled, it has become commonplace to hear that tuition hikes do not adversely affect low-income students. UC Berkeley’s leaders have spearheaded this argument. Former Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and former vice provost George Breslauer assert that higher tuition has actually increased access to UC Berkeley. They argue that in the old days of low tuition, white, middle-class students were subsidized by the state, whereas now the campus acts like Robin Hood and redistributes wealth, charging rich students high tuition and returning much of it in aid to the poor.

Last fall, as the UC Board of Regents voted to further increase tuition up to 15 percent over three years, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and his chief of staff, Nils Gilman, echoed this argument. Dirks insisted that “the vast majority of California students from families earning less than $150,000 a year will see no increase (in tuition fees)”. Gilman went further, still insisting the idea that “tuition increases will hurt students from lower-income families” is a “myth.”

The world of tuition, fees and financial aid has become so complex that it is possible to make statements such as this one, which is almost true but deeply misleading.

It is indeed true that at UC Berkeley, almost 40 percent of students pay no tuition, as a third of tuition revenue is returned to aid. Under the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, students from families earning less than $80,000 have tuition waived. This year, the new Middle Class Scholarship program gave up to $1,700 off tuition for those from families earning less than $150,000. All of that is impressive and should be celebrated.

Although it makes a good headline, it is not the full story. In addition to tuition, students pay campus fees and health insurance costs and have to cover other costs of attendance, including room and board, transportation, books and more. From 2014-15, the total cost of tuition and fees is $15,510, but the total estimated cost of attendance is $32,168 — a decade earlier, the total cost of tuition and fees was $6729. Tuition is less than half the total cost of attending UC Berkeley.

While administrators point to how they have kept tuition costs down for low-income students, they neglect to mention the campus-generated costs those students still have to endure. First, all students — regardless of family income — are required to pay what is unfortunately labeled a “self-help” component.

Families are also expected to make a contribution. The campus Middle Class Access Plan ensures that families earning between $80,000 to $150,000 will contribute 15 percent of their total income. Although many families are forced to take out unsubsidized loans to make this “contribution,” they are not included in the calculation of student debt.  The debt is considered to belong to the family, not the student.

What all of this amounts to is that students from lower-income families may come to UC Berkeley with low or no tuition fees, but they all must still pay the “self-help” component, and many still have a mountain of other costs to scale. In the past decade, as tuition doubled, room and board charges rose from around $10,000 to $14,414, while health insurance skyrocketed from $922 to $2,516. These additional “subsistence” costs hit low-income students especially hard and ensure they experience disproportionately high levels of debt.

Students from families with incomes below $60,000, who are not obligated to pay tuition, graduate with a total debt (and remember that this does not include the debt of their family contribution) of more than $16,500 on average — that is, more than 60 percent of total household income. In contrast, students from families with incomes between $100,000 and $140,000 graduate with the same level of debt, but for them it amounts to 35 percent of total household income. Students with household incomes in excess of $200,000 graduate with the most debt in absolute dollars (more than $20,000), but that represents just around 10 percent of their family’s total income. These figures don’t even include the unsubsidized loans that families have to take out to help their children.

In short, lower-income students and their families have to leverage themselves further into a debt proportional to their income. UC Berkeley’s high tuition and high aid model is no Robin Hood — it reproduces and even deepens inequality.

Robin Hood took from the rich to give to the poor, but he did not then ask them to help themselves by paying him a fee, charging them increasingly higher rates for subsistence and health insurance or asking them and their families to go further into debt than their richer counterparts.

The truly more progressive solution would be to keep California’s promise of an affordable higher education for everyone. If the median taxpayer paid just an extra $31 in taxes each year, all sectors of California higher education — from community colleges to the California State University and UC systems — could have their funding restored and tuition lowered to their level in 2000. In that scenario, we would do without the self-help charge and make tuition genuinely free for the poor. Thanks to the escalation of the total cost of attendance, this would not eliminate college debt for these families, but it would greatly reduce it.

Ensuring equity and access to higher education is the work of the state, not a university system or an individual campus. Public university administrators should fight to hold the state accountable for this and not pretend that tuition hikes do not hurt the poor.

James Vernon is a campus professor of history and co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association.

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  • Strykr32

    “They argue that in the old days of low tuition, white, middle-class students were subsidized by the state, whereas now the campus acts like Robin Hood and redistributes wealth, charging rich students high tuition and returning much of it in aid to the poor.”

    The tuition of all state resident students was subsidized by the state, regardless of family income. Indeed wealth/income are being distributed but not necessarily from rich to poor, rather primarily from students not eligible for Cal Grant to state resident students eligible for Cal Grant.

    “It is indeed true that at UC Berkeley, almost 40 percent of students pay no tuition, as a third of tuition revenue is returned to aid. Under the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, students from families earning less than $80,000 have tuition waived. This year, the new Middle Class Scholarship program gave up to $1,700 off tuition for those from families earning less than $150,000. All of that is impressive and should be celebrated.”

    Cal Grant pays full UC tuition of eligible state resident students. University Grants funded by “Return to Aid” pays room and board costs of state resident students eligible for Cal Grant.
    http://www.csac.ca.gov/facts/2015-16_income_and_asset_ceilings_for_new_applicants.pdf
    http://www.csac.ca.gov/doc.asp?id=905

    The UC wide Middle Class Scholarship Program largely had no effect at Berkeley since any funds awarded under UC wide Middle Class Scholarship would be subtracted from a potential award under UC Berkeley Middle Class Access.
    http://financialaid.berkeley.edu/middle-class-access-plan
    http://financialaid.berkeley.edu/middle-class-scholarship

    “Families are also expected to make a contribution. The campus Middle Class Access Plan ensures that families earning between $80,000 to $150,000 will contribute 15 percent of their total income. Although many families are forced to take out unsubsidized loans to make this “contribution,” they are not included in the calculation of student debt. The debt is considered to belong to the family, not the student.”

    The UC Berkeley Middle Class Access Plan funds around 65% of the tuition of middle class students from families making around 150k and partially to fully funds the tuition and partially funds the room and board of students from state resident families making less than 150k. At family income of 80k, the tuition would be fully funded as well as around 30% of room and board.

    “In the past decade, as tuition doubled, room and board charges rose from
    around $10,000 to $14,414, while health insurance skyrocketed from $922
    to $2,516. These additional “subsistence” costs hit low-income students
    especially hard and ensure they experience disproportionately high
    levels of debt.”

    UC Berkeley Residence Hall fees are among the highest in the nation and through some type of creative fund accounting likely contain a substantial “Return to Aid” component.
    http://housing2.berkeley.edu/rates
    http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/2014/12/23/10-colleges-where-students-pay-the-most-for-room-and-board

    Should UC Regents and Administrators have initiated a redistribution of income/wealth scheme, a scheme that has made UC unaffordable for the middle class, in order to allow students from lower income families eligible for Cal Grant the luxury of attending whichever UC they wish regardless of location. This was never part of the California Master Plan.

  • Becky Newsom

    While UC preaches self-help, they have no problem helping themselves. First, they turned the pension fund over to Wall St (http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/parskys-party/Content?oid=1083283). After losing billions, they then pledged student tuition to the same crowd, thus locking in fee increases (http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/meister211109.html). Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

  • UCB Sophomore

    Why does no part of this article call into question the implicit belief of much of the UC that richer, or even middle class students, should serve as the bankroll for lower income students? What the tuition hikes do is force the middle class out of higher education due to increased costs, negligible aid, and moderate family income. Lower income students certainly face challenges in obtaining an education, but so much of the monetary focus is on helping them achieve. Moderate income students face many of the same challenges, but the notion that an combined family income of $100,000 makes them more than capable of paying $32,000-$54,000 in total fees with nearly no aid is harmful in the extreme.

    • Resident

      You should think through your assumptions carefully. If you question the implicit belief that families with more income should contribute a larger share of their resources to educate their children, what are you proposing as an alternative? Giving you the benefit of the doubt, i.e., that you’re not advocating a scheme that renders a quality higher education completely out of reach for the children of all but the few wealthiest families, what you’re really objecting to is the high burden placed on those of modest incomes, but who aren’t yet destitute. In that respect, I think we both agree that the University’s tuition and fee hikes are creating a huge burden on middle-income families as well as those less fortunate, who the University misleadingly claims their scheme is designed to benefit. The high-income families will hardly notice the difference (except as it might offend the libertarian sensibilities of some), while you and the poor are feeling the weight of the increases.

      Compounding this burden you feel is the fact that the quality of education is declining while little of the tuition increases are going to hire and retain tenured faculty, increase graduate students’ pay, reduce class sizes, or reduce the over-use of adjunct faculty; they’re being pledged as collateral for boondoggle construction projects and private-sector parity administrators’ salaries and benefits. It’s called privatization on behalf of the 0.01%.

      • Strykr32

        The issue is that a public university should not be involved in a redistribution of income/wealth scheme, namely “Return to Aid:” That should come out of the general tax revenue of the state, with the burden borne by all taxpayers not just the taxpayers with students attending a UC. If the taxpayers through their legislators have decided that the state will only pay for tuition through Cal Grant and not room and board, then it is not the prerogative of UC administrators and UC Regents to decide to put the burden of subsidizing the room and board of those students who do not wish to attend a public university near their home, where they would not have room and board costs. This was the state of affairs under the Master Plan and until the advent of “return to aid.” It is the decision of UC Administrators/Regents to pay for the room and board of students on Cal Grant through University Grants funded by “Return to Aid” that is responsible for a majority of the UC tuition increases over the past decade. The Professor states that an increase of $31.00 per year per family in California would allow a lowering of tuition to 2000 levels. That level of tuition would not however allow UC to accumulate the funds that they amass by means of “Return to Aid” and redistribute as University Grants to pay for room and board to UC state resident students eligible for Cal Grant. Return to Aid is not only funded by 33% of tuition paid by state resident students not income eligible for Cal Grant and out of state/international students, but also by the state through Cal Grant since Cal Grant A pays full tuition which includes a .333/.666 = 50% markup to fund Return to Aid. That 50% markup in Cal Grant costs is state money that could be used to subsidize the tuition of all UC students. In other words, UC state resident tuition would not be reduced by only 33% by eliminating “Return to Aid” but by around 50%. Further, if tuition costs were to decrease to these levels, more academically qualified middle class students unable to afford a UC education, would displace less academically qualified students eligible for Cal Grant and overall there would be fewer students receiving Cal Grant, which money no longer going to Cal Grant could then be used to further lower state resident tuition. Ultimately the question is whether the people of California want “Access to Higher Education” to be once again defined as originally under the Master Plan: highly subsidized tuition for all state resident students regardless of family income with lower income students attending public universities near their home or should “Access to Higher Education” be defined as the Regents and UC Administrators have currently, a low cost education for those eligible for Cal Grant including having room and board subsidized, with high tuition costs that are used to subsidize the room and board of Cal Grant eligible students and at the same time, which high cost tuition economically denies a UC education to middle class students not eligible for Cal Grant with UC then largely attended by Cal Grant eligible students and students from higher income families with highly qualified students from middle class families not eligible for Cal Grant left out. This is a question that should be decided by the voters of California not the Regents or UC Administrators.

        • Resident

          I think I largely agree with you to the extent I can follow the run-on
          sentences, and with the reservation that you assume that the state
          legislature, which (together with the Regents) makes
          the decisions affecting student costs, actually represents the will of
          “taxpayers” when there’s very little evidence of this being the case.
          See, for example, “Field Poll shows majority support for increased state funding to public education.” Both major parties in the legislature and the
          Regents seem to be pretty sanguine about the current funding model and
          privatization paradigm. To the extent they disagree, the Regents want
          to move faster toward a corporate education model and running UC “like a
          business.” Little surprise, since they’re a bunch of corporate hacks
          and campaign donors with little or no academic teaching experience.

  • Resident

    I think there’s a typo in the 9th par. where it reads “Students from families with incomes below $60,000, who are not obligated to pay tuition, graduate with a total debt (and remember that this does not include the debt of their family contribution) of more than $16,500 on average — that is, more than 60 percent of total household income.” The total student debt (exclusive of family contribution) must be greater than $36,000 to exceed 60 percent of total household income.

  • how is the current tuition model not a bare faced attempt at wealth redistribution and discriminatory pricing? Anywhere else discriminatory pricing would be called robin hood robbing the rich and giving to the poor.

    • Resident

      God forbid we should have a “public” education system. O, the humanity!

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