The latest news involving the University of California—“Berkeley Sees Admission of Latino Students Drop and Nonresidents Jump”—pits two groups, Hispanic students and non-Californians. But of course what’s really going on is a struggle over money, economic class, and the question of how dedicated public universities will be to their special mission of promoting social mobility.
U.C. Berkeley is cash starved, and one way to raise money is to bring in more wealthy out-of-state students, who pay $22,000 more in fees than resident students. Berkeley didn’t make its change slowly—it more than doubled the proportion of out-of-state students in the freshman class in a single year, from 11% to 23%. And it did so with the full awareness that minority students would suffer. The drop in Latino admissions was 12%. (The data published by the U.C. system addressed changes in racial and ethnic breakdown but not income.)
Berkeley has a couple of arguments in its defense. Among top colleges, it has long shouldered more than its fair share on the economic diversity front. In 2007, according to an Education Trust report, 33.0 % of Berkeley students received Pell Grants. By comparison, other leading public universities had Pell grant rates that were substantially lower, including the University of Virginia (9.5%), the University of Michigan Ann Arbor (13.4%), and the University of North Carolina, Chapel-Hill (15.3%). Furthermore, Berkeley admits fewer out-of-state students than other leading institutions. Michigan and Virginia, for example routinely admit more than 30% of students from out of state.
Some have noted that the big increase in non-Californian freshman may backfire politically, fueling parochial anger from state taxpayers and further reducing the public support for the U.C. system. But this debate goes beyond politics to fundamental questions about the special role of public universities in American society. As scholar Gary Berg notes in new book, Low-Income Students and the Perpetuation of Inequality: Higher Education in America, today most private universities “serve a higher percentage of students from low-income families” than do public universities, undermining the “special responsibility” of public institutions of higher education to promote access.
Some will argue that in tough economic times, public universities have no choice but to make financial decisions that hurt low-income students. This sounds plausible, but what, then, is the excuse for the major decline of academically qualified low-income high school graduates at public and private four-year institutions in more financially flush years? According to a recent report of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 54% of such students enrolled in four-year colleges in 1992, but by 2004, only 40% did.
U.C. Berkeley has been long been the poster child for promoting both academic excellence and economic diversity—a worthy outlier, defending the particular mission of public universities. Its special status makes the recent retreat especially poignant.