By Chris Newfield
Administrative hand-wringing over access has been focused on the giant hole in the income donut where dwell "middle class" students with family incomes of between around $80,000 and $150,000 per year. For example, UC President Mark Yudof recently assured the anti-tax California Chamber of Commerce that UC's Blue and Gold plan makes UC tuition free for all students with family incomes under $80,000, effectively covered the $1890 tuition increase in 2011-2012 for families making under $120,000, and in general makes average net tuition at UC only $4000, or about a third of the current sticker price. In December, UC Berkeley announced a Middle Class Access Plan (MCAP), designed to help those same Middle Earth students with family incomes in the $80,000-140,000 donut hole.
So why, when I was at UC Riverside to give a budget talk three weeks ago, were students trying to show the Regents signs like this:
Here's the simple picture that illustrates the problem:
What about all that grant income that supposedly waft poor students along? It doesn't close the funding gap between financial aid for tuition and related expenses and the overall cost of attendance. As background, take Berkeley's MCAP plan, which estimates Berkeley's cost of attendance as $32,000 per year. In the new scheme, a student from a family grossing $80,000 pays net tuition of $8000, and then family contributes a maximum of 15% of their gross income or $12,000. The university comes up with the missing $12,000 ($4000 coming from the existing return-to-aid program), But the student and her family still pay $20,000 a year, or a quarter of their gross income. This will require the borrowing that appears in the College Board's data.
2010 median family income in California was not quite $55,000 in 2010 (slide 9). Let's say that a student from this median family -- still not technically poor -- gets all tuition covered through a partial Pell Grant combined with a Cal Grant (at least until Jerry Brown messes with it again). This saves another $8000. This student and her median family then need to find $12,000 per year. Factor in this family's net income in relation to California mortgage or rent costs, plus just one other child in the family, and the family's capacity to contribute disposible incomerapidly approaches zero. A student borrowing $4000-5000 per year for four or five years will easily rack up the total debt seen in the chart. UC President Mark Yudof recently noted the debt figure for UC is close to $20,000.
When public university officials claim that access for low-income students is guaranteed by grants, they wrongly lowball the overall access problem. This may have the bad effect of reducing public interest in fixing the whole access problem.