In the past decade, as tuition at the University of California has nearly doubled, it has become commonplace to hear that tuition hikes do not adversely affect low-income students. UC Berkeley’s leaders have spearheaded this argument. Former Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and former vice provost George Breslauer assert that higher tuition has actually increased access to UC Berkeley. They argue that in the old days of low tuition, white, middle-class students were subsidized by the state, whereas now the campus acts like Robin Hood and redistributes wealth, charging rich students high tuition and returning much of it in aid to the poor.
Last fall, as the UC Board of Regents voted to further increase tuition up to 15 percent over three years, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and his chief of staff, Nils Gilman, echoed this argument. Dirks insisted that “the vast majority of California students from families earning less than $150,000 a year will see no increase (in tuition fees)”. Gilman went further, still insisting the idea that “tuition increases will hurt students from lower-income families” is a “myth.”
The world of tuition, fees and financial aid has become so complex that it is possible to make statements such as this one, which is almost true but deeply misleading.
It is indeed true that at UC Berkeley, almost 40 percent of students pay no tuition, as a third of tuition revenue is returned to aid. Under the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, students from families earning less than $80,000 have tuition waived. This year, the new Middle Class Scholarship program gave up to $1,700 off tuition for those from families earning less than $150,000. All of that is impressive and should be celebrated.
Although it makes a good headline, it is not the full story. In addition to tuition, students pay campus fees and health insurance costs and have to cover other costs of attendance, including room and board, transportation, books and more. From 2014-15, the total cost of tuition and fees is $15,510, but the total estimated cost of attendance is $32,168 — a decade earlier, the total cost of tuition and fees was $6729. Tuition is less than half the total cost of attending UC Berkeley.
While administrators point to how they have kept tuition costs down for low-income students, they neglect to mention the campus-generated costs those students still have to endure. First, all students — regardless of family income — are required to pay what is unfortunately labeled a “self-help” component.
Families are also expected to make a contribution. The campus Middle Class Access Plan ensures that families earning between $80,000 to $150,000 will contribute 15 percent of their total income. Although many families are forced to take out unsubsidized loans to make this “contribution,” they are not included in the calculation of student debt. The debt is considered to belong to the family, not the student.
What all of this amounts to is that students from lower-income families may come to UC Berkeley with low or no tuition fees, but they all must still pay the “self-help” component, and many still have a mountain of other costs to scale. In the past decade, as tuition doubled, room and board charges rose from around $10,000 to $14,414, while health insurance skyrocketed from $922 to $2,516. These additional “subsistence” costs hit low-income students especially hard and ensure they experience disproportionately high levels of debt.
Students from families with incomes below $60,000, who are not obligated to pay tuition, graduate with a total debt (and remember that this does not include the debt of their family contribution) of more than $16,500 on average — that is, more than 60 percent of total household income. In contrast, students from families with incomes between $100,000 and $140,000 graduate with the same level of debt, but for them it amounts to 35 percent of total household income. Students with household incomes in excess of $200,000 graduate with the most debt in absolute dollars (more than $20,000), but that represents just around 10 percent of their family’s total income. These figures don’t even include the unsubsidized loans that families have to take out to help their children.
In short, lower-income students and their families have to leverage themselves further into a debt proportional to their income. UC Berkeley’s high tuition and high aid model is no Robin Hood — it reproduces and even deepens inequality.
Robin Hood took from the rich to give to the poor, but he did not then ask them to help themselves by paying him a fee, charging them increasingly higher rates for subsistence and health insurance or asking them and their families to go further into debt than their richer counterparts.
The truly more progressive solution would be to keep California’s promise of an affordable higher education for everyone. If the median taxpayer paid just an extra $31 in taxes each year, all sectors of California higher education — from community colleges to the California State University and UC systems — could have their funding restored and tuition lowered to their level in 2000. In that scenario, we would do without the self-help charge and make tuition genuinely free for the poor. Thanks to the escalation of the total cost of attendance, this would not eliminate college debt for these families, but it would greatly reduce it.
Ensuring equity and access to higher education is the work of the state, not a university system or an individual campus. Public university administrators should fight to hold the state accountable for this and not pretend that tuition hikes do not hurt the poor.
James Vernon is a campus professor of history and co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association.