UC Berkeley among institutions that increase financial mobility

Heyun Jeong/Staff

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UC Berkeley was found to be among several elite institutions that facilitate low-income students moving upward economically into the top 1 percent, as shown in a study released in January by the Equality of Opportunity Project, which analyzes ways to improve educational opportunities for college-age students.

In the study, UC Berkeley economists and co-authors Emmanuel Saez and Danny Yagan sought to identify which colleges in the United States help students achieve income mobility after graduation. In their findings, the authors of the report determined that highly selective institutions have the highest mobility rates among low-income students.

“The colleges that channel the most children from low- or middle-income families to the top 1% are almost exclusively highly selective institutions, such as UC Berkeley and the Ivy-Plus colleges, where 13% of students from the bottom fifth reach the top 1%,” said the report.

In other words, schools with lower acceptance rates are most effective in helping students ascend from the bottom of the income ladder to the top.

Thirty-three percent of UC Berkeley’s student body is composed of Pell Grant holders — a federal grant program for low-income students — while two-thirds of UC Berkeley students received some form of financial aid, according to campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff. Additionally, 40 percent of UC Berkeley undergraduates receive enough grant scholarships to fully cover their cost of attendance.

Although many top universities make efforts to attract low-income students, gaining access to these institutions for this population of students is becoming increasingly difficult, according to the report. The report also found that the percentage of low-income students at state schools such as SUNY Stony Brook and Glendale Community College declined beginning in 2000, when the researchers began collecting data.

Yagan said research is currently underway regarding state funding challenges at some public schools.

“A natural factor in some of these comparisons is that top research universities pay professors to both research and teach while other colleges focus primarily on teaching, yielding fewer professors and laboratories per student,” Yagan said in an email. “Some of the lowest-mobility-rate colleges also spend less per student than elite colleges.”

Yagan also noted that admissions policies, such as the requirement to admit a certain number of community college transfer students each year, could be a possible factor in the mobility rate disparity between public schools and selective private institutions. UCs and CSUs give priority to transfer students from California community colleges, unlike Ivy League schools, which have lower acceptance rates for transfer students.

Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at UC Berkeley who did not participate in the study, said that while UC schools have started moving toward a more holistic admissions process in order to better accommodate low income students’ backgrounds, elite private schools are not changing their admissions policies significantly. Instead, elite private colleges are altering their financial aid policies to attract low-income applicants, he said.

“The risk I see is that public schools get defunded, and that really cuts off the route that low income students have,” Rothstein said. “Berkeley is becoming more and more dependent on tuition revenue, which makes it harder to admit low-income students.”

Revati Thatte covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @revati_thatte.