Stuck in the Middle

As college tuition fees continue to climb far beyond what many can afford, more and more middle-income families are forced to make tough decisions about higher education. However, UC Berkeley has a solution.  

UC Berkeley recently announced a new financial aid program that would help middle-income families struggling with rising tuition fees. The first of its kind in any public university of UC Berkeley’s stature, the Berkeley Middle Class Access Plan (MCAP) reduces the contribution parents make to the total yearly cost of Cal — including tuition, housing and books — to 15 percent of their total annual income. Students with a family income between $80,000 and $140,000 are eligible for the program, which will be in effect starting the 2012-13 school year for all domestic undergraduate students, including incoming freshmen. This kind of program is vital in order to offer quality higher education to more people, but there is still a long way to go before it will be possible for other major public universities to offer this kind of assistance — especially in the rest of the UC system.

Though some may ask why the extra money isn’t being allocated to low-income students, the new plan targeting around 85 percent of Californian families will come as an appreciated rescue to a struggling middle class. According to College Board, tuition rates have increased over 130 percent since 1988, but the median income of U.S. households has remained stagnant around $33,000. Financial aid hasn’t been able to keep up either — since 1992, the largest amount of government-subsidized loans a student can take out has stayed at $23,000, never changing to accommodate students’ increasing needs. With income and financial aid unable to meet the demands of rising tuition costs, middle-income families are forced to make hard decisions when it comes to affording higher education without mountains of debt. The Department of Education shows that numbers of middle-income students enrolled in four-year colleges have dropped as their enrollment in two-year colleges has risen, demonstrating the sacrifices families are making when it comes to their children’s education.

Financial aid plans for middle-income students, like the Berkeley MCAP, already exist in a few well-funded private universities across the country in response to the country’s growing economic crisis. Five Ivy League schools are cutting the costs for middle-income students by drawing from their billion dollar endowments, and Northwestern is eliminating all student loans and replacing them with grants. One generous donor, a 1946 University of Oregon alum named Marry Corrigan Solari, took matters into her own hands and donated $5 million in scholarships for University of Oregon students from middle-income families who are ineligible for federal grants that target low-income students. And now help for middle-income families is making its way to public universities.

Currently, UC Berkeley is one of the only public institutions that can afford to offer this program without taking away from any other financial aid assistance. Officials at Cal say that the source of the money will be funded by a portion of out-of-state and international students, who pay an extra $22,000 per year, as well as money redirected from other sources. In the press conference held over break announcing the Berkeley MCAP, Vice Chancellor Frank Yeary commented that they hope the program will attract a considerable amount of philanthropic support to help offset the plan’s costs and possibly expand it in future years.

Even with this new program, UC Berkeley still has enough money to support its low-income students. UC Berkeley and the UC system have multiple financial aid programs funded by different sources that are aimed directly at low-income students. In 1991, UC Berkeley created the Incentive Awards Program to provide educational and financial access to high-achieving students who face socioeconomic barriers from underserved communities, providing up to $32,000 in scholarship funds over the students’ four years at the school. The UC system as a whole has the UC Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which provides money to students whose family earns less than $80,000 and is eligible for financial aid to cover all educational and student services fees. The Berkeley MCAP, on the other hand, provides financial aid to families who have just missed the cutoff for aid, but still need the help.

With the obvious benefits of the Berkeley MCAP, it would seem ideal to implement it across the UC system, especially here at UCSD. However, UCSD does not have the same kind of funds that UC Berkeley does. In the 2010-11 school year, 14 percent of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate population included out-of-state and international students, while UCSD had only 7.7 percent. And, according to the September 2011 edition of the UCSD Operating Budget Handbook, the extra fees paid by these students are already allocated towards supporting the main functions of the campus, including instruction and institutional support.

While Berkeley’s MCAP will be relieving many families of the mounting cost of college for UC Berkeley’s middle-income students, for now it seems it will only be helping UC Berkeley students.

Readers can contact Chelsey Davis at [email protected]


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