The University of California and ‘The Reproduction of Privilege’

The Devil's Advocate

On Monday, The New York Times’ Thomas B. Edsall made a compelling argument that the role of American higher education has been inverted over the last few decades: During the post-World War II economic expansion, college education served “as a springboard to social mobility,” but today it largely reinforces class hierarchies.

An overwhelming majority of young Americans who hold bachelor’s degrees from competitive institutions hail from wealthy or middle-class families. At the same time, educational attainment is becoming a more and more powerful predictor of economic success. The convergence of these trends, Edsall argues, has turned higher education into “an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.”

Where do UC Berkeley and the UC system fit into the framework that Edsall describes — and what are the implications for the state of California?

Put simply, the UC is an exception to the rule. It has continued to function as a conduit of social mobility, defying the national trend.

Edsall speaks of the preponderance of wealthy and middle class students at competitive universities. Almost 40 percent of UC undergraduates receive Pell Grants, which are typically for students with family incomes below $50,000. In fact, four UC campuses — Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Davis — each enroll more Pell Grant recipients than the entire Ivy League combined.

Edsall speaks of a perpetually widening income achievement gap. The UC system enrolled more low-income students in 2010-2011 than ever before. 

Edsall speaks of declining access to a university education for low-income students. The cost of a UC education for low-income students has fallen since 2004 despite enormous budget cuts, and beginning next fall, UC Berkeley will offer a sweeping financial aid package unprecedented among public universities.

Edsall speaks of polarization within higher education — the growing socioeconomic divide between students at community colleges and students at competitive universities. The UC helps bridge the gap substantially by enrolling more than 11,000 community college transfers each fall.

Edsall speaks of the “reproduction of privilege.” 42 percent of UC students are the first in their families to attend college, a proportion unparalleled at any of UC’s peer institutions.

The UC Office of the President put it concisely in a 2010 report: “The University of California has been unmatched among top-tier U.S. research universities in its ability to enroll a socioeconomically diverse student body.”

Edsall’s observations throw the UC’s singular commitment to accessibility into sharper relief. While higher education around the country increasingly serves to reinforce the socioeconomic status of the well-off, the UC has managed to retain its character as a socioeconomic equalizer.

But the fact that the UC has been successful in this regard does not mean it will continue to be. As every UC student knows, the University’s financial position is fragile at best. If state lawmakers continue to hack away at the UC budget, tuition will continue to skyrocket, quality will continue to erode and the UC will lose its ability to equalize opportunity for all qualified California students.

Wealth inequality in America is soaring to unprecedented heights and the sense of conflict between the rich and poor is rising. The state of California, by steadily dimishing the UC’s share of the state budget, is threatening to destroy the best tool it has to combat these trends.

More than anything else, Edsall’s analysis underscores the magnitude of what is at stake in the fight for public higher education in California. If lawmakers fail to reinvest in the UC, it will undergo a transformation mirroring that of higher education nationwide: from an engine of mobility to an engine of “the reproduction of privilege” from generation to generation.