Middle-class families make sacrifices to afford UC Berkeley education

Gracie Malley/Staff
Freshman Troy Santos, whose family is considered upper-middle class, was surprised by the drastic lifestyle changes his parents made to afford the costs of UC Berkeley.

Troy Santos, a UC Berkeley freshman, has had to make adjustments in order to acclimate to college life, but he did not expect his parents to also have to drastically change their lifestyle to afford his education.

“They eat out less, definitely, and they sold my car once I moved to Berkeley,” Santos said. “We obviously can’t get as many luxury things or whatnot. They take more trips to Costco.”

Everyday sacrifices aside, Santos said he is most grateful for the long-term life choices his parents have made in order to afford all four years of his college education.

“My parents fixed their mortgage rate so they’d have more money to spend on my expenses for the next few years,” he said. “They had about 10 years left on the mortgage for the house, and that extended it to 15.”

Santos’ family is considered upper-middle class — his father is an electrical engineer and his mother is an accountant — and as a result must take out loans since he qualifies for very little financial aid.

The sacrifices required of families like Santos’ to enable their children to attend college help explain the decrease in UC undergraduates whose family incomes are considered middle or upper-middle class, which is shown in the University of California 2011 Accountability Report.

(Source: 2011 UC Accountability Report, Academic Planning, Programs and Coordination (Michelle Bu/Staff)

The report — produced by the UC Academic Planning, Programs and Coordination office — shows that while the number of UC undergraduates supported by families who have lower- or upper-class incomes has increased, the number of students in between has decreased.

According to the report, over the last 10 years, the proportions of undergraduates whose families had lower- or upper-class incomes each increased 5 percent. But over that same period, the percentage of students whose families had middle-class incomes dropped 3 percent, and the proportion of students whose families have upper-middle class incomes fell 6 percent.

Anne de Luca, acting associate vice chancellor of campus admissions and enrollment, said that the proportions at UC Berkeley have been fairly stable for the last five years, though last year more students who reported their families’ income level fell into the upper-class range.

“Our effort is to try to recruit and enroll classes that represent California,” de Luca said. “We feel like in a number of ways we’re maintaining access for (middle-class) families.”

The report provides two potential causes for the drop in undergraduates from middle-income families: a general decline of middle-income families in California and the perception by middle-class families that the UC is no longer affordable.

Hans Johnson, senior policy fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, has researched the family income levels of California high school students, who make up the majority of the UC applicant pool. He said that while he agrees with both of the possible explanations, the first is more significant.

“It’s not surprising that there’s fewer middle-income students applying at the UC,” Johnson said. “But I worry that a lot of people see those news stories about increasing UC tuition and fees and conclude that they can’t afford to go to UC. That’s simply not the case for students from low- and middle-income families.”

In the past few years, the UC has taken steps to improve access for students from middle-income families by expanding the UC Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan to cover California undergraduates whose families make $80,000 or less. The UC is also providing grants to in-state students with family incomes below $120,000 to help cover the fall 2011 fee increase.

“It’s really impressive what (the UC has) done in the face of state budget cuts,” Johnson said. “They’ve done a good job trying to protect low- and middle-income students.”

Still, at UC Berkeley, about 17 percent of dependent undergraduates come from the upper-middle class — the smallest proportion of any income group at UC Berkeley. As a part of a family that falls in this income group, Santos works hard to make sure he does not waste his parents’ annual $30,000 investment.

He spends most weekday evenings underground, sitting cloistered between seemingly endless shelves in Main Stacks, reading and completing homework until midnight or later.

“I could have just gone to community college for two years, but they want me to have the full college experience,” Santos said. “If I did that, they probably would be able to retire earlier, so I definitely want to return the favor once I start working. I’m going to help my sister, who’s in the eighth grade, with her college tuition so my parents won’t have to take out any more loans.”