Cutting middle-class scholarships will create burden on families

Karin Klein
Karin Klein

The state budget looks like it might be headed for trouble, so what’s among the first things Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to do about it? Take a financial swipe at California’s middle class.

The state’s middle-class scholarship for the University of California and California State University hasn’t even been fully phased in – that happens next year – and the governor’s already talking about phasing it back out.

Students whose families make less than $80,000 already get a free tuition ride to the two systems of higher education. The middle-class scholarship, which started taking effect three years ago, was meant to acknowledge that ever-increasing bills – especially those for UC, where tuition and fees now add up to about $13,000 – were taking a toll on people who made more than $80,000 but were far from rich. With room and board, attending UC Berkeley costs more than $28,000 this year, and though that’s a terrific bargain compared with private college, it’s still not something a family with an adjusted gross income of $100,000 a year can really afford.

One early problem was that not all of the money went to families that needed help with the cost of college, though. Early reports showed that about 1,100 recipients came from families whose incomes might not have been lofty, but whose assets amounted to $1 million or more, not counting their houses or retirement accounts.

By all means, do a better job of enforcing the limits on assets, which are set at $156,000. But meanwhile, remember that more than 85,000 families have been awarded the grants and that eliminating the scholarship would punish the 84,000 others.

Meanwhile, UC’s Board of Regents just approved a tuition and fee increase of a little more than $300. Low-income students will be exempt and students from families with up to $150,000 income will be covered by the middle-class scholarship. For as long as it lasts, that is. They’ll also be paying for future increases. The new increase is modest and justified. Keeping up the quality of a UC education matters. But under Brown’s plan, most of the burden would fall on the middle class.

While all this is going on, an increasing number of private colleges are recognizing that middle-class families are being squashed. Relatively few families pay the “retail” price for private college anymore. In addition to financial aid, many private colleges have become increasingly invested in trying to attract high-achieving students with sizable merit packages.

One young woman I know, accepted to UC Davis, chose instead to attend a private college. It will cost her less than Davis because of a generous merit scholarship, while offering smaller class sizes. From 2007 to 2011, the amount of money colleges gave in merit aid doubled to $606 million. More than a fifth of USC students receive hefty merit scholarships, and two-thirds get financial aid of some kind.

If the governor gets his way, UC in particular could look more like a system with a bifurcated student population – lower-income students who get a free ride, and the affluent whose parents can afford the whole tab.

The Legislature needs to push back against the governor. But what’s really needed is a rethinking and realignment of the whole system, along the lines of a sliding scale. Many families earning $75,000 can afford something, though obviously not much, toward their children’s tuition, while those earning $95,000 would be hard-pressed to pay the entire amount. UC Berkeley has the right idea, with a financial aid system that caps the cost of education at 15 percent of family income for families earning from $80,000 to $150,000.

Instead of placing a bigger burden on middle-class families, Sacramento should be figuring out ways for more students to afford a four-year college education.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.