Tuesday, May 26

Increased financial aid to middle-income class will attract a competitive applicant pool

Rei Estrada

Despite the financial uncertainty that is endemic in California’s public colleges and universities, one University of California campus is making a positive change by reaching out to middle-class students with more tuition assistance.

Next fall, UC Berkeley will begin offering greatly increased financial aid to middle-class families, a program similar to ones already in place at Ivy League schools and other private universities. This program will raise Berkeley’s enrollment of middle-income students, which has not increased in recent years like the school’s enrollment of lower or upper-income students.

Yet while some push for the same benefits as Berkeley ““ anywhere from a 10 to 37.5 percent discount on tuition and fees for qualifying middle-class families ““ to be offered at UCLA, it is unrealistic to assume that such a program can be implemented easily. After all, the money has to come from somewhere, and as recent meetings of the UC Board of Regents have demonstrated, the university won’t have much to spare as the UC system faces the 25 percent reduction in state funding it incurred over the course of last year.

UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez said the university currently has no solid plans to alter its financial aid program or adopt a plan like Berkeley’s. But if UCLA wants to stay competitive with top private schools ““ and fellow public schools like Berkeley ““ the university has to maintain both a high quality of education and an equal level of affordability.

While deficits in state funding make these goals difficult, UCLA has to keep up with Berkeley to prevent top students from abandoning their dreams of sunny, Southern California college days in favor of a more economically prudent education in the Bay Area. UCLA should definitely consider adopting a program similar to Berkeley’s middle-class financial aid program, not only to save students money, but also to attract student enrollment.

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and founder of FinAid.org, said UCLA could find itself at a disadvantage if it doesn’t try to make comparable financial aid increases. Kantrowitz added that middle-income students are more swayed by financial aid resources than lower- or upper-income students.

This means UCLA would lose more talented students, and therefore more talented faculty, to schools that offer such financial assistance programs.

However, Kantrowitz said he was somewhat surprised that Berkeley is able to cover the costs of this aid program, given the current financial state of California’s public universities.

Berkeley plans to finance its program with private donations (most notably one $8 million donation) and extra funds raised from non-resident tuition. The first source is by no means a steady, guaranteed stream of revenue; even wealthy alumni have been affected by the recession, and relying on their generosity to fund this program may not be the best idea.

As for the latter, Berkeley’s current freshman class includes many more out-of-state students than UCLA, but fewer international students, according to statistics from the UC Office of the President. Combining both out-of-state and international students, who pay the same tuition, the percentages of non-resident students in the current freshman classes at Berkeley and UCLA are almost equal.

Yet unless the schools find a treasure trove of philanthropic donations, they will have to increase enrollment of non-California residents to finance this plan, an effort that has already started with increased recruiting in other states and countries.

While that is not inherently a negative, it may seem that way to California applicants hoping to benefit from this financial aid plan who apply only to find out they have been picked over in favor of their out-of-state counterparts and will not be attending UCLA after all.

Therein lies the trade-off: making the university more affordable for high-achieving members of the middle-class, at the expense of maintaining a firm commitment to California residents.

One of the options will lead to a more talented and diverse student body, and therefore more prestigious professors, all the while making school less expensive for many students. The other will allow Berkeley and private schools an edge to recruiting the best students, and consequently the best faculty, but at least most students will still understand the age-old “˜hella’ versus “˜hecka’ feud.

In my view, if the university can scrounge together the necessary funds to offer more financial aid to middle-class students, encouraging non-resident students to apply and making the applicant pool a little more competitive for Californians will be worth it to maintain the school’s high quality of education.

Do you think UCLA is doing enough to help its middle-income students? Email Grano at [email protected]

Send general comments to [email protected] or tweet at us @DBopinion.

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.