By Larry Gordon
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
LOS ANGELES — Trying to ease the burden of middle-income families squeezed by the recession and skyrocketing tuition costs, the University of California, Berkeley announced plans Wednesday to extend financial aid to thousands of students from households earning $80,000 to $140,000 a year.
With the program, which starts next fall, UC Berkeley becomes a pioneer among public universities in a national effort to make a college education more affordable for a wider swath of middle-income families. Well-funded private colleges previously have led the way.
UC Berkeley officials called the move a response to reports in California and around the country that some middle-income households are being priced out of the University of California and are reluctant to take on high levels of debt. The Berkeley campus also competes for top students with private colleges that are able to offer generous scholarships.
"As a public institution, we feel strongly that we need to sustain and expand access across the socioeconomic spectrum," UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said in a statement Wednesday. "This plan is part of our commitment to ensuring that financial challenges do not prevent qualified students from attending one of the preeminent public universities in the nation."
The 10-campus UC system reports that many students from families earning less than $80,000 already receive enough university, state and federal assistance to cover tuition. About half of UC Berkeley's nearly 25,900 undergraduates receive some grants, including about 2,000 with annual family incomes above $80,000. Administrators say about 4,000 additional students will be helped by the new program, which will provide annual grants of between $3,000 and $12,000, depending on income. The current total cost of a year at Berkeley for a California resident is about $32,600, including room and board.
"I think it is a smart move and may be the beginning of a trend," said Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges. "The fact is in American higher education, middle-income families are one of the most vulnerable populations in terms of affordability." Hurley said he expected the plan to help the campus recruit high-achieving students who might otherwise go to private colleges.
In recent years, some wealthy private universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, have increased aid to middle- and upper-middle income families and replaced loans with grants. Among public schools, the University of Virginia in 2005 began capping the total amount a student could borrow and promised grants for any remaining need, even for some eligible households in the $100,000 range, officials said.
UC officials expressed concern this year about a study showing a decline in the proportion of UC students from middle-income families, compared to those of other income levels. The drop could be due to a perception "that UC is no longer affordable," the study stated.
UC system spokeswoman Dianne Klein said Wednesday that UC Berkeley was the first UC school to take specific steps to help that income group, partly because the campus has more financial resources than some others. She said the UC system was developing a plan with similar goals, possibly for the fall, although she said it was too early to discuss details.
Asked if UCLA might match Berkeley's aid, UCLA spokesman Steve Ritea said that his campus has many aid programs and is examining "whatever we can to do more."
To qualify for the UC Berkeley grants, families should file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the standard financial aid form, by March 1. Parents who meet the criteria will be expected to pay no more than 15 percent of their annual income toward a UC Berkeley student's total bill. In the past, there was no such cap. But the formula also will require students to contribute about $8,900 or so toward their own annual education costs from summer earnings, loans or with the help of their parents.
To be eligible, families must have no more than $200,000 in assets, other than home ownership and retirement savings.
The $10 million to $12 million cost of the program will be funded by philanthropy and by the revenue the campus earns from a recent sharp increase in its out-of-state students. This fall, nearly 30 percent of UC Berkeley's freshman class was made up of non-Californians, up from 23 percent last year and far above the UC system average of 12 percent.
The high cost of living in California and rapidly rising UC tuition has made a UC education tough for many middle-income families, said Barmak Nassirian, an official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. And even if the actual Berkeley grants turn out to be modest, the welcoming message is important as is the goal of avoiding a campus populated mainly by "the very poor and the very rich," he said.
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