google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: The Impact of Tuition Hikes on Undergraduate Debt

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Impact of Tuition Hikes on Undergraduate Debt

The November UC Regents meeting featured a battle of the paradigms between administrative and student accounts of student finances. 

UC Office of the President (UCOP) officials, led by Executive Vice President Nathan Brostrom, sustained their longstanding claim that generous UC financial aid protects all low-income and most middle-income students from tuition costs. The Berkeley campus issued a statement citing the main talking point:
California students from families with annual incomes under $80,000 will continue to have tuition and fees fully covered by financial aid, and the vast majority of California students from families earning less than $150,000 a year will see no increase.
Upping the volume on this message, the immediate past chancellor of UC Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau, claimed that this high financial aid depends on high tuition, so that "frozen tuition means ever-increasing debt for low-income students."

While senior managers focused on tuition, students focused on their total cost of attendance. This is what they have to pay overall while they are in school.  Grants can cover most or all of their tuition, and yet rent, food, transportation, health insurance, etc. run up the overall bill for attending UC.   Regular folks watching the livestream might wonder why the officials were so soothing while the students were so distraught.  The explanation is that the officials and the students were talking about two different things.


Here�s a figure from a Legislative Analyst�s Office report that visualizes the experience gap in the regents�s boardroom.

For this student, from a family at around the median income, the University, federal and state programs cover all tuition and some expenses.  And in spite of fairly expensive aid, she is left that large blank space in the left-hand bar: nearly $10,000 to pay on her own. (Her total costs are lowballed here--as we'll see, they are closer to $35,000 at the coastal campuses).   

A bit of terminology will help:

"Student Responsibility" in the chart can also be called Self-Help Expectation, or Unmet Need, defined in a basic way as follows

Cost of Attendance (COA) minus Expected Family Contribution (EFC) = Financial Need

Financial Need minus Financial Aid Awarded = Unmet Need

The first thing to note is that a university can say to a student, "we cover your full tuition" and still leave her scrambling to fund a gap in her grants, here of between $9000 and $10,000 per year. She will have to fill this gap either with loans or work.

Second, there is an ambiguity in the terminology. You might assume "Financial Aid Award" means grants.  But in fact university financial aid offices "award" loans as well.  They can, in this way, reduce a student's Unmet Need to zero, but only by inducing the student to borrow and/or take on additional work.  They can also include parental borrowing in the closing of Unmet Need.

I will follow what I believe is UC practice is calling the mixture of loans and work the student's Self-Help Expectation.  Unmet Need seems like a more rigorous term to describe financial need that is not covered by grants, but this is apparently not how UC uses the term so I will avoid it. 

Next, where does the financial aid system expect her to get this money?

I've spent quite a bit of time with financial aid analyses, but like most UC faculty have not done concrete aid calculations for particular students.  I got some help from an employee of UCSB's financial aid office, who was nice enough to send me some examples and comments. This person created the examples below without disclosing the campus's financial aid "parameters," which are apparently confidential. All of these examples presume a family of 4 with one student in college and no assets, savings, or non-salary income. It also assumes the student does not have outside scholarships.


Here is the cost of attendance (COA) for UCSB.

Tuition is about one-third of total costs, which are close to $35,000 a year.  A student can save about $4000 by moving off-campus, putting off-campus COA at $31,000.  I will stick with the on-campus first-year student: how does she cover these costs?

Example 1: Total Family Income = $35,000.
Expected Family Contribution = $0

This is a low-income student.  Her financial aid award letter (assuming on-campus housing) will break down like this:

$12,192    Cal Grant  
$  5,730    Pell Grant
$  7,736    UCSB Grant
$  3,500     Subsidized loan
$  2,000     Unsubsidized loan
$  1,700     Perkins loan
$  2,000    Work study

The student's COA is $34,858. Her EFC is $0, so her Financial Need is also $34,858.  Her grant total is $25,658.  She is left with a Self-Help Expectation of $9200.  She can supply $2000 of that with a work-study job. She needs still to come up with $7200 on top of that. 

This award letter has her borrowing the entire $7200 from three sources. Four years of this borrowing gets her a debt of $28,800. (In practice, annual loan offerings vary and generally increase each year, so $7200+ $6500+ $7500 +$7500 yields $28,700 after four years.)  If she took a second job to avoid taking on half of the loan--by earning $3600 per year--and she worked two eight hour days per week at $10 / hr take-home pay, she would need to work 24 weeks a year while graduating with $14,400 in loans.  

If you look at the charts of both UC Berkeley borrowing and national borrowing in my post "Free Speech and a Free UC," you can see that this is a conservative estimate. The average debt burden for a student in this income range is about $3000 higher than this amount.

Example 2: Total Family Income = $70,000
Expected Family Contribution (EFC) = $7820

$12,192    Cal Grant  
$  5,730    Pell Grant
$  5,646    UCSB Grant
$ 3,500     Subsidized loan
$ 2,000     Unsubsidized loan
$ 1,700     Perkins loan
$  2,000    Work study
$11,520    Parent PLUS Loan

This student is no longer likely to receive a Pell but can still get a Cal Grant (which covers full tuition).  His COA is the same as the first student's, $34,858.  His family is supposed to kick in an EFC of $7820, so his Financial Need is $27,038 per year. His grant total is $17,838.   He has a Self-Help Expectation of $9200. Interestingly, this is the same expectation as low-income Student 1's. Student 2 is not eligible for work study.  His parents are eligible for PLUS loans, however, and together with his $5500 in loan eligibility, this financial aid award letter has the student and his family borrowing to cover both the EFC and his Unmet Need.  

Assuming his loan amounts increase and he accepts the maximum in each case, the total borrowing for Student 2 is $5500 + $6500 + $7500 + $7500.  Four years of that will leave the student with $27,000 in debt for a bachelor's degree.  He could avoid $6800 in loan debt by working the same 16 hour weeks during most of the school year, or avoid all of it with many more hours of summer work. He could also avoid $4000 in expenses each year by living off-campus.  But if he wants to spend work hours on studying, as critiques of reduced student study time like Academically Adrift are asking students to do (my LARB review offers background on this issue), he and his family together will have borrowed $27,000 + $46,080 for a joint total of $73,080 for his bachelor's degree.

Example 3: Total Family Income = $100,000
Expected Family Contribution = $19,760

$12,192    Cal Grant  
$  5,730    Pell Grant
$  5,898    UCSB Grant
$ 3,500     Subsidized loan
$ 2,000     Unsubsidized loan
$ 1,700     Perkins loan
$  2,000    Work study
$23,460   Parent PLUS Loan

This student's family income is more than 150% of median family income in California. She has a kind of "middle class scholarship" in the form of the UCSB grant. It runs slightly higher than that for the student with $70,000 in family income.  But she is eligible neither for the Pell nor the Cal Grant.  Her family EFC is $19,760, so she has a Financial Need of $15,098 per year.  Subtracting her Financial Aid Awarded ($5,898) from her Financial Need yields her a Self-Help Expectation of . . . $9200.  

As with Student 2, she can cover $5500 of that with her two loans, and cover the remaining $3700 with the balance of her parents' PLUS loan ($23,460 minus their EFC of $19,760 is exactly $3700).  Or her parents could take out a smaller loan and she could cover the balance by working a bit more than Student 1's 16 hours a week for 24 weeks a year.  

My source observes,
To make up a third of her need  [without borrowing], a student would need about 20 hours a week or more throughout the school year and that leaves very minimal time for academics and could also be a factor as to why students do not become involved in organizations or research on campus.  That in turn could affect their attendance in grad school or programs like EAP. It then becomes a question of "how much can I do in one day," and what gets left out is when a student has to work it almost always ends up affecting their educational goals. 
Whatever she decides, Student 3 will  graduate with $22,000 in loans after four years. Her parents will owe $93,840 on their PLUS loans, plus interest. 


This is how the situation appears to me:

The student's Self-Help Expectation is not an accident of an insufficient financial aid budget. It is built into all the calculations.  The parameters appear to be structured to generate this gap of $9200 for all students, including poor students.  While private colleges regularly "gap" at least their least desirable admits, say the bottom quarter, UC appears to gap all of its students. My source wrote, "I don't know the politics of the policies behind it. I just know financial aid offices are always leaving that 'gap' to be covered in loans or work."

Covering a Cost of Attendance that assumes a $9200 Self-Help Expectation requires plenty of work, or debt, or both.   That is true of low income students, as the aggregate data confirms. In other words, a full tuition scholarship is readily compatible with $15,000 in graduation debt. The "middle class scholarship," as implemented by a campus-based grant, produces $22,000 in debt in these calculations. 

Parents are taking on new levels of debt for their children.  A $100,000 family income might suggest resources to support college, and the PLUS loans promise to soak all of that up. Student 3's parents take on close to 100 percent of their annual income in loans for one child's public university B.A. degree.  A special program like UC Berkeley's Middle Class Access Plan (MCAP) would reduce Student 3's parents' debt by reducing the EFC from about 20 percent of annual income in that case to a maximum of 15 percent. That would bring their debt down to $77,840.  It would not affect the debt of the other two students.

Parental debt doesn't seem to be reducing student debt, but to be covering tuition increases for non-poor students. 

The portion of tuition increases not funded by student or parent debt is funded by the state or federal governments. Here's a figure that shows one reason why the state is so angry with UCOP.

Fifteen years of tuition increases has increased Cal Grant outlays to UC by close to a factor of 8.This encourages the state to reduce its general fund outlays for UC operations by the amount that it has to increase Cal Grant outlays. Gov. Brown has in fact already told the regents that Sacramento is putting money into student scholarships instead of making "a direct investment in the university."   (For further reading, see Katy Murphy's good overview of the issue). 

Health insurance costs seem very high for this generally young population. So does on-campus housing, which costs $4000 a year more than housing furnished by famously price-gouging Isla Vista landlords (a different cost estimate for off-campus housing is here). Student costs may be artificially increased if campuses are using on-campus housing as a profit center to generate cross-subsidies for other activities.

In short, in the clash between official reassurances and student anguish about tuition hikes, the students are right.  Covering Cost of Attendance has work, stress, and debt built into it. Putting the point more harshly, the high tuition / high financial aid system functions is a debt engine.  Frozen tuition means "ever-increasing debt," in Prof. Birgeneau's terms.  But so does increased tuition.  The current financial aid system is structured to translate both higher tuition and higher financial "aid" into higher debt.

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