Tuition hikes will hurt low-income students, despite the chancellor’s reassurance

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Ameena Golding/Staff

In light of the email Chancellor Carol Christ sent out Jan. 24 about appearing before the UC Board of Regents “to make the case for a moderate increase in tuition” at the behest of UC President Janet Napolitano, I urge her to listen to low-income students.

In her email, Christ explained how low-income students will not be impacted by these tuition increases because they would be covered by our financial aid packages. I am afraid Christ either does not fully understand how the financial aid system works here at UC Berkeley or is intentionally glossing over important details to make her and Napolitano’s case. I have personally spent uncountable hours in Sproul Hall arguing with financial aid staff about my aid packages while impatiently listening to them explain to me how things work.

From what I have gathered in the three years that I have been a student at this institution, financial aid for low-income students works something like this: We receive a number of grants, both federal and state, as well as grants that are exclusive to our individual campus. For example, we receive the Pell Grant, Cal Grants A and B, and some departmental awards. The amount students are awarded in grants vary depending on their financial situation. For me, these grants typically come out to $20,000, more or less.

The current in-state tuition is close to $14,000, our health insurance is close to $3,000, and then we usually end up owing a few hundred dollars for campus fees and services. By the time I pay tuition, health insurance and campus fees, I’m usually left with about $3,000. This is the money that we use to pay our rent and buy food and school supplies. So, unless Christ is implying that our financial aid packages are going to increase along with the cost of tuition, then we will very much be impacted.

Christ also fails to address how these increases will impact middle-class students. Often times when a student’s family income is just above a certain bracket, they do not qualify for financial aid or are offered a middle-class scholarship. The middle-class scholarship, from what I understand, only covers a portion of tuition and fees. These students’ families are often forced to take out loans to cover the remaining balances. Because of this policy, middle-class students can end up with more debt than low-income students. These tuition increases would force low-income and middle-class students to take out more loans to live on, because all of our grant money would be eaten up by our higher tuition rates.

These tuition increases cause many low-income, underrepresented and at-risk students to carry around trauma that comes from intergenerational poverty, disenfranchisement, shame and powerlessness. Many of us feel ashamed to speak out against tuition increases because we are often ridiculed in the working-class communities that we come from for receiving “handouts” — also known as financial aid. When Christ says in her letter that low-income students will not be impacted by tuition increases because our financial aid packages will cover it, her language echoes the language of the ridicules that we hear in our communities. The students on this campus devote our souls to succeeding here, and we are constantly getting back the bare minimum and being told to be grateful for it.

I read somewhere that Christ was an English major. I am an English major as well, and one of my favorite passages from “King Lear” that I want Christ to consider is: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars, Are in the poorest thing superfluous, Allow not nature more than nature needs.”

One might say that $20,000 is a lot of money to be getting for free, and no doubt it is. One might even say that we are ungrateful to complain at all about tuition increases when we are already getting so much free money. Maybe we should find part-time off campus jobs in addition to our work-study positions and full course loads. Or better yet, maybe we should stop spending our money on things we do not need. But working part-time impacts our abilities to remain competitive academically. And why should we have to dedicate so many hours to working when the students whose families make enough money to afford these tuition increases don’t have to sacrifice precious studying hours to put themselves through school?

Raising tuition is a systemic punishment on low-income and disadvantaged students. Many low-income, minority and underrepresented students looked forward to Christ’s leadership and saw her as a positive figure in comparison to former chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who spent $700,000 dollars on a fence.

Yet, how can we see Christ as any different when she supports tuition increases? How can she justify tuition increases when the campus spent millions on a football stadium that is built on a fault line in a neighborhood that has an early noise curfew? Or how about a $90 million swimming pool that is constantly off limits to the majority of the campus? And how can she deem low tuition rates to be what is threatening the quality of education on this campus?

To Christ, why are you folding to Napolitano’s high tuition agenda? I and the other 30,573 undergraduate students on this campus can only hope that you will use your time and power on this campus to stand up to greed rather than perpetuate it.

Clinton Terrell is a UC Berkeley student studying English and a member of Berkeley Underground Scholars.

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