UC Regents vote to increase supplemental tuition for professional degree programs

Critics worry increase will hinder progress in raising ethnic diversity of programs

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In voting last Wednesday to increase supplemental tuition for most of the university’s professional degree programs, the UC Board of Regents reignited an ongoing debate about the adverse effect such tuition increases would have on the enrollment of students from underrepresented ethnic groups in programs where their representation already lacks a presence.

Opponents of the increase say raising tuition, no matter the dire financial circumstances these programs face, will make underrepresented students who are academically competitive for UC programs more inclined to attend similarly ranked programs at private institutions that may offer more financial support and have no restrictions to practice affirmative action policies.

“My primary concern is if UC continues to increase professional degree supplemental tuition, it may negatively impact students of color ability to afford professional education,” said newly appointed Student Regent-designate Cinthia Flores. “Additionally, eligible and competitive students of color may chose to attend private institutions because of their financial flexibility.”

However, given the uncertain financial situation of the university and the limited amount of state funding these professional degree programs receive, UC officials said increasing tuition is necessary to maintain the programs’ qualities of education.

The programs with the largest percentage of tuition increases, officials said, have boasted a relatively low and stable tuition for the past few years.

Students at the university’s four nursing programs, for example, will see their tuition increase in the fall by 35 percent, the greatest percentage increase of all the 50 programs that have had tuition increased. This is the first time there will be an increase for these programs after state-funded programs which sought to expand nursing education by keeping supplemental tuition low ended and federal funding to the programs was reduced by more than half, according to a Committee of Finance agenda item from the regents meeting last week.

Yet students are upset, saying that with every tuition increase, doors are closed for many more otherwise qualified students — many of whom identify with underrepresented communities.

“Voting to increase supplemental tuition undermines the spirit of the (undergraduate) tuition freeze, even if the increase only affects some graduate students,” said Angelica Salceda, external affairs vice president for the UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly, in an email. “A blanket vote approving all increases in (supplemental tuition), without scrutinizing specific proposals, goes against what students tirelessly fought for during the state budget negotiations.”

Students against the tuition increase cite the slow growth of the enrollment of underrepresented students in the UC professional degree programs as a trend that rising tuition will not help speed up.

In 2000, the 11.2 percent of students enrolled at UC professional schools were underrepresented and a decade later, that number grew by just 2 percent to 13.2 percent, according to an agenda item.

Still, the UC is quick to acknowledge the dilemma created by increasing tuition and the restrictions of Proposition 209 — which, in 1996, banned public universities from considering race, sex and ethnicity in admissions criteria.

“The question is how to recruit minorities while working within the confines of the law,” said UC spokesperson Dianne Klein. “Private schools are not hampered by Prop. 209. They can offer race-based scholarships.”

For this reason, university and campus officials view modest gains as victories.

The Haas School of Business, for example, increased the underrepresented student population in its professional degree programs from 4 percent in 2001 to 9 percent, according to a presentation Haas Dean Rich Lyons made to the board Wednesday.

Eric Abrams, director of diversity initiatives at Haas who was hired last year to expand the school’s diversity, said assessing applicants based on how they will contribute to overall “intellectual diversity,” helps to create a more ethnically diverse student body.

Some critical of the slow growth rate say it is a result of the university not prioritizing socioeconomic and racial diversity in professional degree enrollment at the same level as it has been prioritized in undergraduate admissions. Others say it is simply a result of the fact that many students from underrepresented communities simply cannot afford the hefty price tag.

Either way, critics of the increase raised concern over the ability of students to enter modestly-paying public interest careers shouldering large amounts debt.

Borrowing rates tend to be highest for students in programs with higher supplemental tuition rates or those who take longer to complete their education, according to the UC Office of the President annual report of student financial borrowing published in April 2012. Once borrowing just over $14,000 in 2002, professional degree students borrowed over $22,000 in 2010, according to the report.

With each tuition increase, the regents are closing off opportunities for underrepresented students to work in public interest fields, Salceda said in an email.

“What incentive does a poor underrepresented law student have to go back to serve their community when that same student is paying over $30,000 a year in professional degree tuition alone?” Salceda said in the email.

An analysis by the university found that most of its professional programs will be more expensive than comparable public institutions, but less expensive than a combined subset of public and private competitor institutions, according to the agenda item.

Of the 57 professional degree programs at the UC, 40 programs have calculated that the total cost to students will exceed the total cost to students at comparable public professional programs, while 54 will have average total charges less than the average total charges of programs at competing public and private universities.

Additionally, the agenda item also stated at least one-third of the amount of total supplemental tuition brought in by each program will go to providing financial aid to the program’s low-income students, fulfilling a policy that officials hope will continue to attract a diverse applicant pool.

However, students are wary to use the price tag of a professional degree as a measure of attracting a diverse student body.

“Professional schools no longer have the excuse to not fix diversity issues” said Student Regent Jonathan Stein, whose vote was one of two at the meeting against the tuition increase. “Schools now have all the resources they need to go to historically black colleges, (predominantly) Latino communities and outreach and explain why our graduate programs are excellent.”