College Financial Aid Policies Can Cause Tension Among Social Classes

January 6th, 2012

2012: The Year of College Affordability?

By UCLA IDEA

Last month, the Obama administration signaled that it is paying attention to
the increasing problem of college affordability, especially for middle-income
families. Vice President Joe Biden discussed the reality for many
parents:  “There’s more parents tonight who are going to go to bed staring
at the ceiling literally wondering about, whether your mother is going to have
to tell you… ‘you can’t go back next semester, we don’t have the money’” (Huffington Post).

Those worries are already familiar to Californians, who have witnessed
seemingly endless tuition and fee increases at all of its public
institutions—University of California, California State University and
California Community Colleges. In the past three years, the UCs, Cal States and
community colleges have been devastated by hundreds of millions in budget cuts.
Last year, UCs and Cal States dealt with a $650 million shortfall followed by
another $100 million in midyear cuts (Thoughts on Public Education, San Francisco Chronicle).  On Thursday, Gov. Jerry
Brown said to prepare for up to $200 million more cuts for UCs and Cal States
unless additional revenues can be generated through a November ballot
initiative (Sacramento Bee).

For students, budget cuts mean increased tuition, more competition for admission
from out-of-state students (who pay much higher tuition and are favored by some
budget watchers), and fewer courses and services once enrolled (often entailing
a costly fifth year to achieve a four-year degree). The pace at which tuition
has increased is alarming. In November, anticipating midyear “trigger cuts,”
Cal State trustees voted on a 10-percent tuition hike, its ninth fee increase
in as many years (Thoughts on Public Education).

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, public four-year
college tuition more than tripled in western states in the last 30 years (US News). And according to the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, California public
four-year universities had the highest percentage increase in in-state tuition
and fees for the 2011-12 year (Neon Tommy).

Responding to higher college costs, students are borrowing more and ending
college with more debt. “A Berkeley education is still a bargain, in terms of
lifetime earnings, but that’s a small comfort to a middle-class who can’t
afford it, or to a student who has to take out a burdensome loan,” said Robert
Reich, a Berkeley professor and former U.S. labor secretary (Washington Post).

Though all sectors are impacted, many middle-class families are no longer
confident that they can pay for their children’s education without
extraordinary sacrifice, if at all. Middle-class families typically do not
qualify for financial assistance available to California’s poor. At UC
Berkeley, the proportion of middle-class students—those whose families earn
between $80,000 and $140,000—has declined while low- and high-income student
populations have grown. In response, Berkeley officials decided to cap the
amount middle-class families pay at 15 percent of their household income.

The cost and scarcity of college opportunities raises the risk of different
classes pitting their interests against each other. For example, the California
Dream Act, which went into effect this month, provides access to public and
private scholarships for a group of low-income, primarily undocumented
immigrant students who previously had no chance for financial help. It would be
sad if these students had added to their vulnerable legal and social status the
enmity of others whose educational opportunities were also becoming
increasingly jeopardized. Collective efforts to ensure affordable college for
low- and
middle-income families offer the best hope for avoiding social-class resentment
and expanding opportunity. Ultimately, the way to protect the middle class is
to grow the middle class.

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