UC-Berkeley and other ‘public Ivies’ in fiscal peril


Students at the University of California at Berkeley walk through Sather Gate. A new tuition plan caps parents’ contribution toward the annual cost of a U.C. Berkeley's student's education at 15 percent of their earnings. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
December 26, 2011

Across the nation, a historic collapse in state funding for higher education threatens to diminish the stature of premier public universities and erode their mission as engines of upward social mobility.

At the University of Virginia, state support has dwindled in two decades from 26 percent of the operating budget to 7 percent. At the University of Michigan, it has declined from 48 percent to 17 percent.

Not even the nation’s finest public university is immune. The University of California at Berkeley — birthplace of the free-speech movement, home to nine living Nobel laureates — subsists now in perpetual austerity. Star faculty take mandatory furloughs. Classes grow perceptibly larger each year. Roofs leak; e-mail crashes. One employee mows the entire campus. Wastebaskets are emptied once a week. Some professors lack telephones.

Behind these indignities lie deeper problems. The state share of Berkeley’s operating budget has slipped since 1991 from 47 percent to 11 percent. Tuition has doubled in six years, and the university is admitting more students from out of state willing to pay a premium for a Berkeley degree. This year, for the first time, the university collected more money from students than from California.

“The issue that’s being addressed at Berkeley, fundamentally, is the future of the high-quality public university in America,” said Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, now a public policy professor at Berkeley.

Supporters of public higher education fear that, should the cuts continue, Berkeley will lose some of its ability to compete with elite private universities and serve the public as a vehicle of opportunity.

In a bold play to regain public confidence, Berkeley leaders on Dec. 14 announced an unprecedented offer of need-based aid to families earning up to $140,000. The Middle Class Access Plan caps each family’s parent contribution at 15 percent of household earnings, a pledge that rivals those of Harvard and Yale.

The crisis facing Berkeley is part of a broader national retreat in state support for public higher education. States spent one-fifth less per public university student in 2010 than in 2000, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Tuition costs surging

In academia, there is particular concern for the sector leaders known as “public Ivies.”

These top public universities (a group that includes Berkeley, UCLA and the universities of Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia) educate many more students than their Ivy League counterparts. Berkeley alone serves roughly the same number of low-income students — measured in federal Pell grant data — as the Ivies do together.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than Berkeley. Anchor of the nation’s most prestigious public university system, Berkeley boasts a constellation of graduate programs rivaled only by Harvard. The university consistently tops academic rankings of public institutions. Its campus has parking spaces reserved for Nobel laureates.

Berkeley’s 25,885 undergraduate and 10,257 graduate students are famously opinionated. It doesn’t take much to get them talking about the many ways their state and their school are letting them down.

“If you pay more, you want to see more, and we aren’t getting anything more,” said Bahar Na­vab, a graduate student and president of Berkeley’s Graduate Assembly.

Today’s Berkeley seniors pay half again more in tuition and fees than when they were freshmen. But the number of students for every faculty member has risen from 15 to 17 in five years. Many classes are oversubscribed, leaving students to scramble for alternatives or postpone graduation, a dilemma more commonly associated with community college. Navab said her own class, “Introduction to Public Health Policy,” “has a wait list almost as long as the class list.”

Berkeley’s overall budget continues to rise modestly from year to year. Total university revenue rose from $1.7 billion in fiscal 2007 to $2 billion in 2010. The universities of Michigan and Virginia have seen a similar increase.

But much of Berkeley’s money comes in grants and gifts earmarked for specific uses. Dollars for educating students come mostly in state educational appropriations and net tuition revenue. Those sources together have generated less money per student each year since 2007, university officials said.

Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau says the class crunch is easing, the fruit of a strategic investment in “gateway” courses in reading and composition, math, science and language.

“We are threatened,” Birgeneau said. “We are not in decline.”

‘A lot of stress’

Berkeley’s rolling hilltop campus, overlooking San Francisco Bay, feels like a crossroads of the world. At the stroke of 6 o’clock on a recent evening, the chiming of the carillon on one side of campus vied for attention with the pulsing of a Taiko drum ensemble on the other. The university is the pinnacle of the nation’s largest state higher-education system, with 350 degree programs and a science portfolio enriched by the neighboring Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. More than 60,000 students have applied to next fall’s freshman class, one of the largest numbers seeking entry to any American university.

They come, in large part, for the dazzling faculty. Matt Walker, a sleep psychologist, transfixed his audience one fall morning with a lecture on homicidal sleepwalkers. Walker had polled the class at the start of the term and found it averaged 6.75 hours of nightly slumber. After a semester of sleep pedagogy, the average was up to 7.25 hours.

“Essentially, every lecture I gave you added 60 seconds to your sleep time,” Walker told students, to laughter.

The faculty and students who took up study here in 1873 dreamed of building not just a university but a new society, liberated from the rigid class strictures they had left behind back East.

Berkeley became the jewel of a higher-education system that rewarded merit above wealth, access before privilege. This wasn’t mere public education but something more ambitious. State leaders eventually gave the endeavor a fitting name: the California Master Plan.

But now, the California economy is paralyzed, and the plan is in tatters.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) this month announced an additional $100 million reduction to the $2.3 billion University of California annual budget, already pared by nearly a billion dollars in the downturn.

If the state divestment continues, Berkeley’s in-state tuition could reach $22,000 in four years, nearly double the current rate of $12,192.

Berkeley softens the impact on its neediest students with a financial aid pledge that covers tuition and fees for families earning up to $80,000. But until the university announced the middle-class bailout, there was little help for families earning too much for financial aid and too little to afford Berkeley’s soaring fees.

In previous generations, a Berkeley education was nearly free; students lingered on campus to savor the contemplative life. Today, in-state tuition, fees and living expenses total $30,000. Students work part time to pay the bills and load up on classes to graduate more swiftly. That imperative has pushed Berkeley’s six-year graduation rate to 91 percent, up from 83 percent a decade ago — a positive tiding, taken alone.

“It adds up to a lot of stress,” said Jackie Chirico, 22, a Berkeley senior. “And it breaks some students.”

Vishalli Loomba, 21, a senior who serves as president of the governance group Associated Students, said she seldom gets her first choice of classes. This semester, Loomba had to settle for a lab section from 7 to 10 p.m. And her family has struggled to keep up with the bills.

“My parents had a plan for how they were going to afford my education,” she said. “That went out the window after the second year.”

Northern California’s public Ivy, like others, is seeking more private funding every year through tuition and donations.

Birgeneau, chancellor since 2004, has thrown open the gates to out-of-state and international students, who pay three times the tuition charged to Californians. In just two years, the share of non-resident freshmen at Berkeley has tripled to 30 percent. The university’s overall non-resident population is 15 percent.

Berkeley now collects about $600 million a year in net tuition revenue, $300 million in private gifts and $700 million in externally funded research.

It’s still not enough to keep Berkeley on pace with its private peers. The university used to match Stanford, Columbia and Harvard on faculty salaries, said John Aubrey Douglass, a Berkeley higher-education scholar. Today, Berkeley pays less, and the gap is widening.

“If those disparities grow greatly,” he said, “then I think Berkeley will be in big trouble.”

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