Tuition rollbacks will not hurt financial aid

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As hundreds of students walked out in the rain last Thursday to call for rolling back tuition, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau told CBS News that more tuition hikes are inevitable despite increased taxes on the rich from Proposition 30.

New tuition hikes would be outrageous, considering that the university has raised average yearly tuition and fees from $3,859 in 2001 to $13,181 in 2011. That’s why protests will continue this week at the UC Board of Regents meeting.

But as ridiculous as the chancellor’s promise of new tuition hikes might seem, he didn’t stop there.  Instead, he added that a tuition cut would make it harder for low- and middle-income students to attend the university for free because “because a significant part of their financial aid comes from students of privileged background.”

If the chancellor believes his Orwellian statement is true for low- and middle-income Californians, then he is lying to himself.

To begin with, much of the funding for financial aid for low-income students has nothing to do with increased tuition, even for privileged students.  Rather, federal Pell Grants and state Cal Grants provide financial aid for students from families earning less than a specified amount per year.

Further, financial aid has failed to soften soaring tuition costs, according to university’s own studies.  Even after receiving information presenting UC Berkeley as affordable, an estimated 41 percent of Berkeley students surveyed this year said they thought the cost of attending Berkeley is not manageable.

But the drop in enrollment by middle- income students best reveals that tuition hikes are not making the university more affordable for low- and middle-income students.

The math is pretty simple, so hopefully Birgeneau can follow this.

The university cut enrollment of new freshmen from California at UC Berkeley from 4,879 in the 2009-10 school year — including spring 2010 admits — to just an estimated 2,913 students in fall 2012. In other words, fewer qualified potential freshmen from California are attending Berkeley at all, let alone for free as the chancellor suggested to CBS News.

Just as alarming, the percent of new freshmen who come from families making less than $80,000 a year fell from 51 percent in 2003 to an estimated 45 percent in 2011.  And the percent of freshmen from income brackets that qualify for Berkeley’s new Middle Class Access Plan fell from 34 percent to an estimated 31 percent during the same period. All told, UC Berkeley is turning away more qualified students than ever from low-income and middle-income communities — especially from communities of color.

But these declines do not tell the full story.  Even as the share of students at Berkeley that are from middle- and low-income families has declined, fewer still of those students are from California.  Many of our dwindling middle- and low-income students are freshmen coming from outside California, a group that has almost tripled from 394 in 2007 to an estimated 1,249 in 2012.

Middle- and low-income students from outside California add important diversity to our campus.  But their admission to Berkeley does not necessarily increase their access to a great education.  Many of these students receive generous offers from elite private and public universities elsewhere.  And this out-of-state growth masks a loss of diversity in the plummeting enrollment of middle- and low-income students overall.

So what is really behind this?  For one, out-of-state students bring in more revenue than California students, because they pay higher out-of state tuition rates — sometimes with assistance from federal financial aid.

And what is Berkeley spending growing out-of-state tuition on?  On Nov. 13, four other UC Berkeley doctoral researchers and I released a report showing that the university has used increasing tuition to engage in risky borrowing practices with Wall Street for a massive construction boom to attract yet more out-of-state students.

Why a construction boom? Perhaps management thinks shiny new buildings will help convince potential applicants that Berkeley is prestigious enough so that they will pay higher tuition rates. College prestige in the U.S. is measured in large part by how hard it is to get admitted to a school. The more people from inside and outside California who apply — and get denied — for a chance at a full ride, the more our prestige grows. And the more our prestige grows, the more students might be willing to pay in tuition for the value of a more prestigious Berkeley degree.

It’s hard to see how this vicious cycle could lead to more Californians from underrepresented communities getting a free education at UC Berkeley as Birgeneau claims.

The new chancellor should get the real story from Berkeley’s student activists and education finance researchers before he gets sucked into the echo chamber of UC management.  We’re easy to get in touch with.  For example, at the regents meeting on Thursday, we’ll be on the streets.

Charlie Eaton is a doctoral student in sociology at UC Berkeley.

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The op-ed may have implied that 4,879 new California freshmen were enrolled for just the fall 2009 semester. In fact, this number refers to all new California freshmen enrolled for the 2009-10 school year, including spring 2010 admits.