UC students face increasing student loan rates

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When UC Berkeley senior Vesta Namiranian graduated from high school four years ago, she thought transferring to a UC from a community college as a junior would make her education more affordable.

Yet, with the state and country in the midst of one of the worst financial crises in its history, Namiranian did not realize that her ability to afford a UC education for even two years would be dictated by a reliance on loans that could increase drastically if voters do not pass Gov. Jerry Brown’s November tax initiative.

Namiranian, who took out a federal direct subsidized loan when she transferred last fall, said if tuition continues to increase, she will need to take out another loan.

“I never expected (the cost of) education to be unpredictable,” she said.

New federal loan developments for students

As of July 1, new borrowers of federal graduate student loans became responsible for paying the interest accrued on the loan while still in school and immediately afterward. At the same time, undergraduates who take out a federally subsidized loan in the next two years became responsible for the interest accrued six months following graduation.

The two significant changes in federal student aid policies are estimated to cost students an additional $21 billion over the next decade.

For a public university system that has seen tuition increase 84 percent since 2008, is teetering on the edge of an additional $125 million dollar budget gap for the upcoming academic year and whose financial stability for the 2013-14 academic year hinges on voters passing Brown’s tax plan, these changes in federal student aid policies may close the door for not only Namiranian but many more students.

Recent borrowing trends of students supported by middle-income and upper-middle incomes — defined by the university as incomes between $99,000-$123,000 and $123,000 -$148,000 — indicate that these changes may affect students of these incomes the most. According to a UC report on student financial support published in April 2012, these students’ levels of borrowing have increased more rapidly than students in other income brackets since 2008.

These students, who often don’t qualify for state-funded or UC-supported grant programs, made up about 17 percent of the campus undergraduate student population in 2010 — the smallest proportion of any income group on campus. In 2010, that number at all 10 UC campuses was about 18 percent, while in 2001, students supported by middle and upper-middle-class incomes made up about 24 percent of the UC student body, according to the UC 2011 Accountability Report.

Maintaining enrollment in-state students

Additionally, a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that an increasing number of high school graduates are leaving California to attend four-year institutions in other states  — despite the record-high number of freshman applicants the UC admitted for the fall — a trend the study attributes to the rapidly increasing tuition of the state’s public higher education system.

UC officials acknowledge this decline may come from a perception by middle-class families that the UC system is no longer affordable, but have stated that new programs may soon dispel that notion.

Last year, the university provided grants to in-state students with family incomes below $120,000 to help cover the fall 2011 fee increase. At various campuses including UC Berkeley, administrators have begun cost-cutting initiatives in an effort to streamline administrative costs and initiated stronger fundraising campaigns for private and philanthropic donations.

Starting this fall, the campus will start providing aid to students supported by families making $80,000 to $140,000 a year through the newly-created Middle Class Access Plan. The cost of the plan is covered through increased philanthropy, redirection of financial aid resources and through revenue from the increased number of students paying non-resident tuition.

Looking for alternative solutions

Yet, for a cash-strapped university system, these initiatives and tuition increases are simply ways of responding to and mitigating the impact of an unpredictable state budget and midyear trigger cuts the university receives from the state, officials said.

“Students, through tuition, are paying more,” said UC spokesperson Dianne Klein. “That is our fiscal reality; it is unfortunate, but it has led some people to say that increases in tuition are the only way we have accounted for the lack of state funding, and that is not the case.”

However, until the state budget deficit can be tamed and a long-term agreement can be created with the state to avoid unpredictable budget cuts, family and student contributions into higher education will play an increasingly significant role, experts said. And with the sticker price of a public education increasing, so could student debt.

“It makes it a bit more difficult for the UC to plan,” said Paul Golaszewski, a senior fiscal policy analyst at the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office about the current state of the UC’s budget. “From a student perspective, midyear tuition increases are even more difficult because there is little time to plan for them.”