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Who Pays More? Who Pays Less?

by Robert J. Birgeneau

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week  the Regents [of the University of California] are scheduled to have a critical vote on President Janet Napolitano's proposed five year budget plan which includes, in the absence of significant increases in state funding, 5% annual increases in tuition. Not surprisingly, this proposal has already received extraordinarily strong responses from the media, Sacramento, students and the general public. Much of the response has, in my view, been based on misinformation. Interestingly, there has been little discussion of the likely impact of the 5% tuition increases on the economic and ethnic diversity of our undergraduate student body.

The effects of tuition increases on diversity are counter-intuitive because of the complexity of our financial aid system. The most important single fact for us at Berkeley is that because of the way that we constructed our Middle Class Access Plan, only students whose family incomes exceed $150,000 ever have to pay the tuition increases. (Of course, the state through its Cal Grant program, also will pay the increases for those students who qualify for Cal Grants). What is the situation for our low income students? Because of the Cal Grant program and the Blue and Gold Guarantee, they pay no tuition at all. Part of their other expenses: food, housing, travel, books etc., is covered primarily by Federal Pell Grants, the 1/3 return to aid of tuition, and scholarships. If tuition does not increase then concomitantly the return to aid does not increase. However, the students' expenses do, so frozen tuition means ever increasing debt for low income students.

Who are these students and what are their ethnic backgrounds? I only have data for the system as a whole, courtesy of Pamela Brown, but these will be closely similar to those for Berkeley specifically. Who will pay more if the Regents approve the Napolitano plan? Systemwide, undergraduate students whose families earn more than $150,000 annually are 47% Caucasian, 41% Asian and 12% underrepresented minorities. Who will pay less for their educations than they would otherwise if the Regents approve the tuition increases? A good measure of this is Pell Grant recipients who are 41% underrepresented minorities, 41% Asian and 18% Caucasian. Clearly, the vast majority of our underrepresented minority undergraduate students will face ever increasing financial challenges including increasing debt if the Regents do not approve the tuition increases.This situation is even more dire for our undocumented students.

Similar considerations apply to the staff. I will not go through the financial details here but if the Regents do not approve the Napolitano budget then our staff will be at risk and the lowest paid staff are always the most vulnerable. 

In brief, diversity is one of our most prized values here at Berkeley.  It is an essential part of our identity as a public university. Preserving and indeed enhancing our diversity requires the Regents to approve President Napolitano's budget.  Let us hope that they do so.

Robert J. Birgeneau is a Professor of Public Policy and the Arnold and Barbara Silverman Distinguished Professor of Physics, Materials Science and Engineering. He served from 2004-2013 as the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.