Protestors gather outside Sproul Hall at Berkeley for an Occupy rally. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

1. Has Berkeley become a rich-kid school?

Several commenters mentioned that the tuition squeeze at places such as Berkeley has effectively gentrified the schools, filling them with wealthy students. Here are some statistics provided by Berkeley that represent incoming freshmen.

The population of low-income students at Berkeley has climbed from 3,212 students in 2004 to 3,390 in 2010. This group of students has grown, despite rising tuition, because these students effectively pay no tuition under the school’s aid pledge for needy students. The number of middle-income students - - from families earning $80,000 to $140,000 a year - - has dwindled from 880 in 2004 to 847 in 2010. This is the group that earns too much to qualify for Berkeley’s aid safety net but too little to easily afford the school’s current tuition. The population of students from the wealthiest homes has more than doubled in number, from 227 in 2004 to 480 in 2010.

Those population numbers are behind the university’s decision to introduce a middle-class aid plan this month.

“A Berkeley education is still a bargain, in terms of lifetime earnings,” said Robert Reich, the former U.S. labor secretary and now a Berkeley professor. “But that’s small comfort to a middle-class family who can’t afford it, or to a student who has to take out burdensome loans.”

It’s important to note that Berkeley still educates about as many low-income students as does the entire Ivy League. Berkeley remains a destination for many talented low- and high-income students. Now, university leaders are trying to repair the broken access pipeline for the state’s middle class.

2. Shouldn’t Berkeley cut administrative bloat rather than raise tuition?

Many commenters cited overpaid administrators and faculty as a problem at the top public universities. One (arguably) positive side effect of austerity is that Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland system and others have responded to their state legislatures with multi-year "efficiency" programs that have cut hundreds of millions in overhead, much of it targeting expenses that were duplicative, wasteful, overpriced, etc.

Some of the cuts have unquestionably diminished the schools, such as removing telephones or groundskeepers. But Michigan, for one, saved loads of money by moving to self-insurance and generic drugs and saving energy. At Berkeley, the health center provides a case study in what good and bad can come of forced efficiency. 

As for salaries: It’s well documented that neither Berkeley, UCLA nor any of their public peers can match faculty pay at Harvard, Cornell and the other top private universities. Berkeley, on average, pays its faculty around 20 percent less than its top private competitors, according to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. The highest-ranking California publics used to be able to match those elite salaries. A 20 percent gap puts Berkeley at a competitive disadvantage. “I believe if we can be within 10 percent, we’ll be fine,” Birgeneau said.

The same disparities characterize higher education more broadly: “You don’t see too many public universities, even good ones, being able to raid private universities for their faculties,” said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities.

Berkeley and its peers do, however, usually have enough money to match pay at private schools when they try to lure away a star professor. “Our policy has been that if you have an offer from a peer institution, we’ll match it,” said Robert Price, associate vice chancellor for research.

3. Should states be subsidizing higher education in the first place?

A large number of commenters either said or implied that students and their families, in the end, should be responsible for covering the costs of public higher education.

Higher education leaders say that view is spreading among taxpayers and, more important, state legislators, who increasingly see the tuition lever as the way out of fiscal insolvency for public universities.

“Higher education seems to be no longer thought of as a public good but rather as a private interest,” Rawlings said.

The California Master Plan is an exemplar of the old model of financing public higher education: Until about 1990, California’s public universities were effectively free to students. Gradually, fees became tuition, and tuition rose. California’s average tuition and fees have tripled in 15 years, according to federal data, although the state still appears to rank relatively low nationally on this measure.

Setting aside the question of whether states should subsidize public higher education, the fact is that the burden is gradually shifting to private citizens. From 1985 to 2010, tuition nearly doubled to $4,321 in constant dollars, while per-student state subsidies declined from $7,479 to $6,451, according to this annual report.

4. How much out-of-state tuition does Berkeley charge?

The chief way Berkeley and other public Ivies have offset the loss of state subsidies is by charging more tuition. But there are limits to how far any public university can go in raising in-state tuition without alienating lawmakers and the public — they expect even a cash-strapped public university to offer deeply discounted in-state rates.

The real growth has come in tuition charged to non-residents: students from other states and, increasingly, other countries. Berkeley charges a nonresident "supplement" that pushes total tuition and fees to about $36,000 a year. That's typical of the University of Virginia, UCLA, Michigan and other top publics. They price themselves just below the level of the top private universities, essentially because they can. Many, although not all, non-resident students from within the United States pay full price for the privilege to attend a public Ivy, as do virtually all international students. The international crowd doesn’t generally qualify for any aid, so those who attend are usually well-heeled. And their dollars subsidize resident students. This cross-subsidy system has fostered a vast population of international undergraduate students where, a few decades ago, virtually none existed.

The University of Michigan took the lead in enrolling large numbers of out-of-state students and charging them private school rates; today, that practice is called the “Michigan model”. Berkeley is one of the last public flagships to fully embrace it.

5. What about the University of Maryland?

I omitted U-Md. from the Berkeley article mainly because the article focused on an elite group of public universities that most closely resemble the Ivy League institutions and are considered leaders in their sector. Who are the public Ivies? The group seems to include U-Va. and the College of William and Mary, most of the University of California, the universities of Michigan, North Carolina and Texas, and perhaps the universities of Washington, Wisconsin and a few others.

Maryland is not, by most accounts, a public Ivy. It is, rather, a rising star, a former safety school that has ascended into the top ranks of public higher education but apparently still lacks the credentials to be considered one of the very top public institutions.

U-Md. differs from the others in another key respect. The state of Maryland has proven uniquely generous in supporting higher education through the economic downturn. Gov. Martin O’Malley and state universities chancellor Brit Kirwan oversaw a four-year tuition freeze at the very moment when Berkeley and most other state universities were raising tuition through the roof.

State appropriations have actually risen by five percent per student in Maryland over the past five years, in constant dollars, according to a report.