Skip to main content

A closer look at UC’s “tuition-free golden past” and who’s financially hurting today

Bob Jacobsen, professor of physics | March 31, 2010

Tom Hayden recently wrote an article, entitled “We Can’t Afford to Be Quiet About the Rising Cost of College,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Hayden began by saying, “Students today, however — even those who hold two part-time jobs — fall tens of thousands of dollars into debt, a burden that limits their career choices.”

I’m sure this is happening at some schools, but it’s not as common as people think at UC. Across all students graduating in 2007-2008, less than 12% had more than $20K of debt. For students from families with less than $23K family income, that number rose to 21%. Less than 3% had debt of $30K or more overall, less than 4% for students under $24K family income. (As an aside, the debt load for under-23K$ students will drop a lot if undocumented students were eligible for financial aid, which is why that’s being recommended to the Gould Commission; were that the case, it’s estimated that 14% would have more than $20K debt, and less than 2% would have more than $30K.

Hayden continued:

“The value of the past lies in remembering how recently higher education was affordable, even cheap. It’s not inevitable that a college education today costs so much. Undergraduate education is virtually free at the Sorbonne or the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and a year at Oxford costs no more than community colleges charge here. The choices we have made as a country—to relentlessly privatize our public institutions; to eventually spend three trillion dollars, by some estimates, on the war in Iraq instead of on our public universities; to bail out billionaires on Wall Street while hitting students and their families with repeated tuition increases—are choices with consequences that we have to rethink or accept.”

There’s another choice we’ve made, that is much more relevant: We support the entire student cost, not just tuition.

California students with parent income under $60K don’t pay tuition/fees. (There are holes in this at the level of 2-3% of those students, though; see mention of undocumented students above.) Back in the Golden Past of the 60’s & 70’s, they would have paid $120/$240/$540 depending on year, which corresponds to $860/$1520/$2756 now, but they don’t pay tuition/fees now. So for those students, roughly half of all UC students, the situation is better now that the “tuition free” Golden Past. It’s actually much better now, because most of those students are getting money for living expenses, books, etc, from the federal government, state of California and UC. We write checks of up to $8K to students for their living expenses.

University grant support for living expenses was very rare in the 60’s and 70’s, where students and their families were responsible for their own living arrangements and costs. A much larger fraction lived at home. When somebody tells me about “Attending Berkeley for $240,” I try to ask how they paid their living expenses. It’s a great conversation starter, because I often hear interesting stories of paying for room & board by being the breakfast cook at a fraternity, or working at the Oakland Tribune, or typing theses, etc. Students in 1974 worked more hours, on average, then they do now; low income students worked many more hours than they do now.

For the students with family income in the lowest third, both UC as a whole and Berkeley specifically are more affordable now than they were then.

So who’s really hurting? Specifically, over the past 5 years, who’s average non-zero student borrowing has gone up? Whose parents are borrowing more? Who’s working more hours? The answers to those questions are the blocks of parent income from $89k-$112K, $112K-above, and $93K-$139K respectively. (The different measures are grouped differently in the published data, hence the funny bounds. I’ve left “independent” students, mostly older transfer students, out of this because their situation is much more complicated; most have an unchanged situation, some are worse off.)

At the same time, these are the people who are providing most of the “return to aid” money that funds UC grants. Because of their structure, federal and state grants basically go to pay tuition/fees of the students who are eligible for them. The aid over that, for increasing support for rising living expenses, mostly comes from UC itself.  The majority of that aid comes from “return to aid fund,” the 1/3 of tuition/fees increases, etc, that are dedicated to financial aid.  Most of that is paid by parents with family incomes of $90K to $160K. (There are students with family income above that, about 1/4 of the net payers, but it’s hard to get information about the negative impact, if any, of recent funding changes. Non-resident students actually pay more than they do, but I’ve omitted them from the totals because I don’t have enough information on them either.)

How far can this go? How much can we ask of these people before we’re denying them access to the University? Those are judgment calls, on which reasonable people can differ.

Comments to “A closer look at UC’s “tuition-free golden past” and who’s financially hurting today

  1. On August 15th President Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard, thereby allowing the Federal Reserve Bank to print money out of thin air. The National debt in 1971 was $400 billion and doubled 5.5 since then to the current $20 trillion. Total prize money for the PGA Tour has doubled 5.5 since 1971, but if the minimum wage from 1971-$1.60 per hour had doubled 5.5 it would around$75.00 today. There is the crux of our problem. The American have no money! Also, go to you You Tube and listen to JFK secret society speech, the 5:34 minute version.

  2. Make education and health free. Just pay the appropriate taxes. For those (normally rich) people who do not want to pay taxes, stop being selfish, you will benefit too!!

  3. What about the students who have parents who are high earners but refuse to help them out? Some parents refuse to help their adult children. Those children are worse off.

    • Kids that have rich parents probably went to great high schools, their education experience had to have been 100X’s better than a kid from the Tenderloin. If they can’t figure out how to obtain a college degree when they are already miles ahead of those less fortunate, then I don’t feel sorry for them.

      Maybe rich kids need to be taught how the world really works, they don’t deserve any handouts, they need to work for what they want like every one else. They can’t get a job?

  4. Your article touches upon important issues of the day. My children entered UC Berkeley in 2007 while their closest friends entered Stanford, UC Davis and Stanford. As parents who funded the entire costs with no money left, the parents of the friends were free to travel and enjoy nights out.

    Why? Stanford and MIT offered generous scholarships that included living expenses. Davis students have access to Cal Grants and Federal Aid that can be applied to living expenses. The remaining individual family debt is with that of middle and upper middle-income parents who sacrificed lost opportunities while the children whose families did not save graduate debt free. (Foothill dorm was nearly $3,200 a month for two in 2007.) I qualified for a Berkeley education in the 60’s, but I didn’t have living expenses.

    Thank you for highlighting some problems with funding. Hopefully, fewer students and their families will find higher education so daunting in the near future.

  5. One way to make college affordable would be to exempt federal income taxes on the income of college graduates (assuming they can find jobs) until they have paid off their school loans. The minimum monthly payment on the loan would then be equivalent to the federal income taxes they would owe if they did not have a school loan to repay. When their college loans were repaid, then the employees would commence paying federal income taxes.
    Students and colleges would benefit and the government and our society would more than make-up for the lost tax revenue after the school loan had been repaid. The colleges and states would not lose revenue, since it is the federal government that would forgo the federal income taxes while the student loan was repaid. Additionally, colleges could reduce tuition, since they would no longer have to provide financial aid. The government could use the money currently set aside for education grants, etc. to offset the loss in income tax revenue from loan repayments. Furthermore, we would have a more educated and productive society, which would create even more revenue, innovation, jobs, and taxes.
    In a similar vein, the IRS allows a lawyer to deduct the cost of attending a seminar in law, on the grounds that it is a necessary business expense to keep one’s skills up. However, a high school graduate enrolling in college cannot deduct those costs, because he or she is not yet in business and thus is not considered to be incurring a business expense.This line of reasoning is out of touch. The reason people buy education/professional improvement is to make more money, period. It’s a cost of eventually doing business, a basis that should be amortizable over a career that would not be possible without this initial investment.

  6. If I were a prospective college student today, I might not pursue software because it may be outsourced. Today’s generation is focused on their smartphones, or like the Boston bomber, beer, pot and partying.

    • Obviously you don’t understand the current market. I work in software and I can safely say I’m in high demand right now.

      As an engineer and manager, I’ve seen the outsourcing fad come and go. We do use an outsourcing firm, but most of our bleeding edge projects are ran completely here (Los Angeles for me, but effectively Los Angeles and San Francisco/Silicon Valley) and we’re in desperate need of good engineers. Generally outsourcing firms are not good at bleeding edge creative projects which account for 75% of the projects I’ve worked on.

      If I wanted to move to NYC, Seattle or up to the Bay I can find a well paying job in under a month because I have a software background. So please, don’t jump to conclusions on a job market you don’t understand.

    • I agree with Lorenz, being in IT / software industry is best thing currently. I am not worried about outsourcing but more worried about Automation and Robotics which will impact coming generation. I think that our hope is Green Technologies and we should partner with other countries on that.


  7. Just forget about education and think for a moment for those innocents who died in the garb of collateral damage. we have killed thousands of people in afghanisatn, iraq and combodia, and the worse is that we are continuing unabated. it is a fact of nature that whenever an innocent dies he/she leaves an impact in the form of horrific backlashes. i tell you we must brace now for the worst kind of backlashes.

  8. Would love to see citations for some of this information. I certainly know students that have left with FAR more than $20k in debt (some of it carried by their parents). I left in the late 90s with over $20K owed.

    Two big points

    – The WARS The WARS The WARS. All the talk of a few hundred million dollars … the wars have cost a trillion. What self-respecting physicist would ignore the big stuff like this in an experiment?

    – Student expenses — $12,000/yr tuition + ~$18,000 for living expenses are essentially impossible to cover on part time jobs. This wasn’t an issue in the golden 60s and 70s.

  9. Interesting article. Rising cost are definitely affecting students. The community shouldn’t sit and wait. Will be good if it starts taking charge to ensure something is done to right the situation.

  10. Bob, I love your article. Nobody talks about the money we spent (and will continue to spend) on this nonsense war, just imagine how many kids we could have provided education for instead. This country would be the best educated country had we chosen not to go to war and provide scholarships with that money. Thanks for a great article.

  11. Today it is hard to get into college and the potential student has hundreds of question. They need someone to answer these questions and it would be nice to have some kind of guide. A free education guide is what they need that is written by college professor’s for new students. The guide contains answers for financial aid, admissions testing, finding your degree program, school grants from government web site, scholarships and more. I am a graduate of Mass Bay Community college class of 1996 alumni in General Motors ASEP Program. If I had this guide then it would have made it easy getting into college.

  12. These numbers aren’t that shocking, we have so called “free” education here in Australa and I bet we have more than 12% with a debt of $20K or more. With our system it is all debt to the government and doesn’t need to be paid back until reaching an income threshhold

  13. Wow the numbers look pretty bad. I don’t think it’s fair to put all the blames on the UC system though because the U.S. economy and California finance are not doing well in general. According to a report just coming out, a new federal rule change could bring in new real estate investors and help the economy; hope things will get better soon. Go bears! Full report is here:

  14. Bob, I strongly urge you to think harder about what Tom said, as you quoted: “The choices we have made as a country—to relentlessly privatize our public institutions; to eventually spend three trillion dollars, by some estimates, on the war in Iraq instead of on our public universities; to bail out billionaires on Wall Street while hitting students and their families with repeated tuition increases—are choices with consequences that we have to rethink or accept.”

    From a much more up close and personal historical perspective relative to Berkeley and LLNL I suggest you also consider another fact of life that has most negatively impacted life at Berkeley, throughout America and the world already. The fact is that Edward Teller also dedicated himself to controlled fusion back in the 1950s, but H-bombs and the harshest truth of President Eisenhower’s grave warnings about the military-industrial complex and domination of the nation’s scholars destroyed all possibility of even coming close to achieving Teller’s dream of controlled fusion.

    So here we are in 2010, over a half century later, and it’s way past due time to refocus UC and LLNL on achieving Teller’s dream soon, because the clock is ticking on and on while we are experiencing increasingly out of control climate changes because of the consequences of failure by our political and intellectual leaders to meet the challenge of change, including the continuing marginalization of Teller and Eisenhower at our increasing peril.

    I suggest that as you continue your cost-benefit analysis you also need to include the totally unacceptable costs of foregone opportunities that are now accelerating, and dedicate your highest priority to achieving the needs of Humanity, as well as saving and dedicating higher education to make the right things happen for Humanity.

Comments are closed.