UC’s proposed cohort-based tuition model increases barriers for nonresident and low-income students

Illustration of increased tuition prices at Berkeley
Kelsey Choe/Staff

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As state funding per UC student has decreased while the student population increases, campuses increasingly rely on tuition and student fees to sustain their general funds. Proposals to increase tuition are not new at UC Board of Regents meetings. The last tuition increase for all students was a 2.5% increase in tuition and the Student Services Fee, or SSF, in 2017. Nonresident students, however, saw their tuition increase two years ago, when the board approved a 2.6% ($762) increase to undergraduate nonresident supplemental tuition, or NRST.

On July 22, the regents will be voting on a new kind of tuition package: the cohort-based tuition model. But this package of five-year tuition increases is worse than a one-time tuition hike.

In the proposed cohort model, each incoming class of freshman and transfer students pays a greater amount than the class before. The increase in tuition and the SSF for each year is based on the average rate of inflation during a rolling three-year period plus a base percentage increase until 2027. Every yearly increase would be capped at 6%.

For example, current UC Berkeley students pay $14,254 in tuition and fees. If a cohort-based system imposed a 3% increase, the first incoming class, or cohort, would pay nearly $14,682 annually for up to six years.

The next class would then theoretically pay an increase of 3% from the previous cohort. Students on campus would be taking the same classes and have access to the same services while paying different tuition rates.

Furthermore, the proposal has certain key features that are worth noting. First, the annual tuition increases would be greater than the average inflation rate until 2027, when yearly increases would only be based on the inflation rate. Second, these increases would continue permanently. This one action by the regents could mean perpetual tuition increases if the policy is not changed in the future. Third, nonresident students would bear the greatest burden because of their inability to access state financial aid.

This would not be the first time nonresident students experience unfair treatment. In accordance with the recently approved state budget, the university will be reducing the number of nonresident students at UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego to provide more seats for Californians at those campuses. The budget funds greater in-state enrollment to account for the losses to university revenue from NRST. When the university has faced previous budget cuts, its response has been to raise the now nearly $30,000 NRST. With about six in 10 nonresident students coming from low-income and middle-class families (families that make less than about $177,000 annually), tuition is an incredible burden on thousands of nonresident students.

The UC system is viewed as a pillar of inclusivity and diversity in higher education. However, its treatment of nonresident students has been impudent. If only the wealthy can afford to attend schools in the UC system, what does that say about public Californian higher education? With this proposed tuition model, the UC system risks losing the diversity of experiences and ideas that nonresidents bring, and both the school and state are worse for it.

The UC Office of the President argues that this model will benefit low-income students, as 40% of the increase would be allocated to financial aid. However, not all students who need help affording school receive aid, including the students whose families aren’t contributing to their education. The financial aid process is not perfect and many students are left out.

Many middle-income families’ students are not eligible for grant aid such as the Cal Grant B, a living allowance from the state meant to assist with covering costs of attendance outside of tuition and fees. At the same time, the Middle Class Scholarship only covers up to 40% of UC tuition and fees, meaning that those students and families still bear the burden of living expenses. Although the proposal sets aside 20% of the revenue from the increased NRST to be allocated for nonresident financial aid, this aid won’t cover everyone who needs it.

Furthermore, despite increases in financial aid, it is unclear whether low-income students would see substantial benefits. After all, a portion of the returns to financial aid would be used to cover the tuition increase itself. And although the proposal discusses potential methods of reducing student borrowing, it seems that the university has no concrete plans to reduce a student’s “self-help” contribution, the amount that all students are expected to contribute to their cost of attendance themselves through working or borrowing. Without decreasing this, low-income students may not see substantial decreases in their cost of attendance or the debt they will have to pay after college.

Though we recognize the challenges posed by university core funds failing to keep pace with enrollment, tuition increases are not the solution, particularly when the state budget not only restores the cuts made to the university general fund in 2020-21 but also presents the largest funding increase in UC history.

The future UC students affected by this proposed policy aren’t the ones who can give public comments to the regents next week. It is our responsibility as current students to ensure that the UC system is accessible for future generations, because past UC students did it for us. In doing so, we fight to ensure that our university remains a bastion of inclusive learning.

Bailey Henderson is the 2021-22 federal government relations director of the ASUC external affairs vice president’s, or EAVP’s, office; Davina Srioudom is the 2021-22 local government relations director of the ASUC EAVP’s office; Raina Zhao is a 2021-22 chief of staff of the ASUC EAVP’s office; Riya Master is the 2021-22 ASUC EAVP; and Samantha Warren is a 2021-22 chief of staff of the ASUC EAVP’s office.

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