The University of California provides schoarships to students whose family incomes are less than $80,000 a year -- a policy that, the university claims, leaves a sizable portion of the student body with effectively free tuition.
Now the UC's flagship campus, Berkeley, is offering a better deal: a cap on the costs of attending college for "middle-class" families with annual incomes of between $80,000 and $140,000 a year.
Berkeley's promise is that parents will pay no more than 15 percent of their annual earnings to cover the total cost of a UC Berkeley student's education. That total cost "includes tuition, fees and expenses, such as room, board and books," Berkeley says.
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How, you ask, is Berkeley doing that given the much-touted cuts in state support for higher education?
The short answer is that Berkeley is an exceptionally strong institution that brings in more money in private donations and other government funding than other UC campuses. That gives the university more money to do things like this tuition cap.
Berkeley also is deeply invested in maintaining its elite reputation, which requries the best students. And it's hard to get the best students when tuition and fees keep going up to cover the diminished state support.
The University of California leadership worries that top students that might have attended Berkeley or another UC campus will go elsewhere -- to private schools or public institutions out of state -- that might be able to give them a better financial deal.
Berkeley has decided it needs to stay competitive-- and has the resources to do this. The trouble is that other campuses may not be able to follow suit.
This move is an example of how the UC system, facing budget cuts and other finanical pressures, is behaving less like a system.
The cream of the UC crop -- Berkeley and UCLA -- have more resources to preserve their advantages. Berkeley's middle-class aid program is a natural response and a good one for some families. But it's also a sign of weakness in California's public higher education system.