UC Berkeley Financial Aid and Scholarships office strives for affordability, culture of care

I care deeply about students, as do the members of the two teams I am grateful to lead: Financial Aid and Scholarships and Cal Student Central. We know that many students dream of attending UC Berkeley for the opportunity to change their lives. And attending UC Berkeley certainly did change my life, which is why I have dedicated my life to this work.

I came from a family with lots of love and very few resources. I gave birth to my son during my senior year of high school, just four days before my UC application was due. My expected family contribution was $0, and I needed the Federal Pell Grant, the Cal Grant and all of the other grants, scholarships, loans and work-study offered to me. I never would have imagined the opportunities my financial aid opened for me: learning from a U.S. Poet Laureate, being classmates with the Crown Prince of Norway and beginning my career with my work-study position in the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office. I am honored to continue this proud tradition and to offer the next generation of students the services and support they need to succeed.

UC Berkeley recently ranked among the top five in the America’s Best Value Colleges list by Forbes magazine, a remarkable feat considering that the cost of attendance (tuition, supplies and living expenses) for students living off campus rose by $4,000 over the past four years, and the cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to climb.

Providing elite education access to California students, regardless of their financial status, has been a guiding mission of UC Berkeley since 1868. Financial aid helps build a diverse community of scholars from a wide range of economic backgrounds. Providing robust financial aid programs helps recruit, retain and graduate students, paving the way for their success.

We also encourage community with alumni and donors, helping them give the gift of access to the next generation of students, resulting in the contribution of $38 million in privately funded undergraduate scholarships for students each year. We constantly strive to enhance the undergraduate experience by supporting students’ basic needs and increasing financial sustainability through careful stewardship of federal, state and institutional dollars.

UC Berkeley has taken great steps to insulate our lowest-income students from rising costs by limiting the increase in the amount they are expected to contribute from loans and work-study to only $1,500 of the $5,000 overall cost increase. Through strategic partnerships and rigorous planning, we work with students to obtain scholarships, grants and many other resources, such as research stipends, work-study and loans, in efforts to drive costs of attendance down even further.

Our advisers, counselors and Bears for Financial Success peer mentors counsel students and their families on empowering options for managing their financial wellness, so students can focus on obtaining an excellent education, not on paying tuition or basic needs.

These collective efforts result in amazing outcomes for UC Berkeley students. The Financial Aid and Scholarships Office awards more than $750 million in financial aid annually, providing nearly two-thirds of UC Berkeley undergraduates with some form of financial aid. Thirty-eight percent of undergraduates qualify for the means-based Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan and receive enough grants and scholarships to at least fully cover their tuition.

As a result, the majority of UC Berkeley students graduate with no loan debt, and those who do take out loans borrow almost $5,000 less than their peers at other public colleges and universities in California and $10,000 less than their peers nationwide. For the students who graduated in the class of 2017, the average amount they borrowed over their entire time here, $18,197, was about the cost of only three semesters’ worth of tuition.

However, despite these innovative programs and robust aid figures, we still have a long way to go. We’ve heard frustration from students in formal and informal meetings, in presentations and through advisory groups. Supplied with this valuable feedback and data, we’ve dedicated resources to securing additional staff support during peak periods, responding to the vast majority of inquiries in between zero and three days, eliminating the administrative fee for emergency loans, and improving the functionality of the new technology system by moving more paper forms online.

We have also revised policies regarding Satisfactory Academic Progress and are protecting all aid applicants from the Cancel for Non-Payment Policy. All of these changes are made with enhancing the student experience in mind. We are working with partners to continue to secure additional donations for scholarships, as well as advocating on behalf of students to state and federal legislators and policymakers so we can sustain or even reduce the amount students have to work and borrow.

Most importantly, I want students to know that we are here for them and that we care about them individually. We are continuously working to improve how we support students. Attending UC Berkeley is a life-changing experience, and we want yours to be not only enjoyable, but also affordable.

Cruz Grimaldo is an assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and the director of the Financial Aid and Scholarships office and Cal Student Central.