When I was at Yale University one summer, I found myself reflecting on the little differences between it and UC Berkeley. At UC Berkeley, an important meeting always suffered from a shortage of food. At Yale, I attended mundane events with tables stocked like a supermarket shelf. This was the hidden advantage of the Ivy League, I thought to myself.
UC Berkeley and Yale share an affinity for the color navy and a classification as a major research institution. Their respective budgets, however, couldn’t be further apart. Yale’s $25 billion endowment makes a UC-wide $14 billion seem paltry. UC Berkeley’s currently running a $110 million dollar annual deficit. As for Yale, it reported an $86 million surplus at the end of 2016.
Forget the numbers for a moment, and consider what really distinguishes UC Berkeley from Yale. It’s our mission as a public university for the benefit of Californians. It’s the GI Bill and the post-second-world-war dream of higher education for working people. It’s the affordable tuition that added millions of people to the middle class — and continues to do so.
Given the recent crisis in our budget and rankings, I’m worried that UC Berkeley’s long-standing public mission is increasingly lost behind the numbers. With each subsequent generation of the middle class since the second world war, it seems this dramatic expansion of college attendance recedes further in memory, even as UC Berkeley continues to uplift many.
For much of U.S. history, higher education was the playground of the letterman sweater progeny of the nation’s wealthiest. From 1869-1900, the percentage of 18-24 year olds in college remained about 1 to 2 percent. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called Princeton University the pleasantest country club in the nation.
In the next 40 years, up to the end of the 1930s, the attendance rate would inch upward to only 9 in every 100. The GI Bill changed all of that. By fall of 1949, enrollment had risen to 15 percent and would keep climbing. Public institutions such as UC Berkeley expanded to educate the millions of new working class students. Public universities accounted for 74 percent of all enrollment by 1969 (all data found in pages 72-74 of hyperlinked report).
When my grandfather was discharged from service at the end of World War II, the GI Bill gave him the option to study dentistry or podiatry. He chose the latter and took his wife, my grandmother, to Brooklyn. He filled notebooks up with his studies of chemistry and biology, while my grandmother handled the history readings, writing paragraph summaries for him. Their work paid off; my grandfather graduated as a podiatrist and moved back to New Haven. A steady middle-class life awaited them.
UC Berkeley has been churning out stories like my grandfather’s to this day. Not everyone is on the GI Bill anymore, but as part of a public university, UC Berkeley’s mission has long been the advancement of Californians in the broadest sense. When the New York Times released its latest College Access Index (2017), which ranks universities by the number of lower and middle income enrollees, the top 10 was dominated by the University of California system. UC Berkeley came in ninth. A whopping 17 percent of our incoming classes are first-generation college students. They carry the dreams of my grandfather into the 21st century.
But the times are a-changin’, as the Bob Dylan song goes, and that legacy faded in relevance. In the generation after my grandfather’s, college was a healthy expectation and not a leap of faith. My mother didn’t marry young or need a major war to put her through school. She graduated from Barnard College, capping off a rise to the top of the all-girls college pyramid. She had a job, a family and a master’s degree.
In one generation since my grandfather’s, higher education had become the vehicle of prosperity. It wasn’t a right, though; admission had to be earned. And so the first tremors were felt of what is now a middle class fever for higher education. By the time my brother was a teenager in the ‘90s, education spending jumped in the upper-middle class. The public university mission, built on the principle of expanding access to higher education, was becoming marginal just two generations from my grandfather’s. The public university’s value is now judged by three essential metrics: name brand, rank and funding.
By the time I was in high school, UC Berkeley conjured up more associations with its place in the US News hierarchy than its history as a gateway to the middle class. When I came here, that ignorance changed pretty quickly. Suffice to say, I became a firm believer in the public mission of UC Berkeley, even after three years of experience with its limitations.
But increasingly, this aspect of the UC Berkeley brand is hidden behind two numbers: our ranking and our endowment. They are intertwined statistics. Take for example this simplistic analysis: Seven of the top 10 schools in the country are also top 10 in endowment size. UC Berkeley’s recent slip from its firm hold on the No. 1 public university in the world is unexplainable without considering its hundred million dollar deficit and planned cuts.
For the next generations of students, many of whom are propelled by an increasing tailwind of middle-class anxiety and expectation, UC Berkeley will be judged by two numbers. But the university’s public mission and continued service to the middle class ought to be centered in any discussion of UC Berkeley’s value. I hope the mission of our campus, which is embodied in each new crop of first-generation students, is not lost in the deluge of numbers.