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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

UC Davis good for low-income students, but challenges remain

Last week, in an article entitled “The California-Upward Mobility Machine,” The New York Times described how University of California (UC) budget issues haven’t prevented the system from catering to low income students. A related article ranked UC Davis second on a list of colleges “doing the most for low income students.” The list measured schools, in part, on the share of their students receiving federally funded Pell grants, their graduation rates and the tuition charged to lower-and-middle-income students.

The Times used these results to form what they called “The College Access Index.” The average score was one, and UC Davis scored 1.62. UC Irvine, the highest ranked school, scored 1.91. Six out of the top seven schools were UC’s.

The Editorial Board commends UC Davis for taking the steps required to achieve this score.

Students have questioned how universities might respond to growing levels of income inequality in the United States. Low-earning students with affordable access to higher education have a far greater chance of entering the middle class, according to many studies.

School-wide drives like the 2020 Initiative, announced by Chancellor Linda Katehi in March 2013, have the potential to undermine UC Davis’ goal of becoming an even greater institution of social mobility. As part of a long-term growth model, the initiative has the important goal of increasing cultural diversity by recruiting more out-of-state and international students. UC Davis also stands to benefit from the higher tuition these students would pay.

But concerns have been raised about how the plan would affect in-state students.

From 2013 to 2015, the number of out-of-state first-years (including international students) admitted to UC Davis increased 57 percent while the number of in-state admits decreased by 12 percent. Fluctuations in admission and enrollment are complex. The in-state decrease should not be attributed to any one variable. But the result would be the same: a campus that caters more to those who can afford to pay higher tuition.

UC Davis needs to ensure that cultural and ethnic diversity will not come at the expense of economic diversity.

In its first-year implementation plan for the initiative, UC Davis acknowledged that without more revenue from out-of-state tuition, it might be compelled to reduce enrollment, with socioeconomic diversity suffering as a consequence.

It’s worth noting that this initiative was formed prior to the 2015 tuition standoff between UC Regents and the California government that threatened to make the UC system significantly less affordable. Now that an agreement to increase state funding to the UC has been reached, and tuition has been frozen, UC Davis should focus on making up its in-state admission losses.

The Editorial Board hopes that the UC Davis community pays attention to other potential barriers to an economically diverse student body.

In the past, rising tuition affected lower income students disproportionately compared to students with better means. According to the Department of Education, the net price paid by students with families at UC Davis earning $30,000 or less was $10,492 in the 2013 academic year, up $1,118 from two years earlier.

In that same period of time, families earning more than $110,000 saw their student’s tuition increase $1,845 despite having an income over three times as great as the lowest bracket.

This discrepancy proves the obvious, but perhaps overlooked, point that the poorest students suffer the brunt of tuition hikes more than anyone else. UC Davis needs to take this into account when tuition unfreezes.

But because net prices are prices paid after assistance like the Pell grant, UC Davis’ high standing on the New York Times list shows that the University has become a far more equitable institution with the help of state and federal aid. With 31 percent of students receiving the Pell grants at Davis—and comparable figures across the UC—this system continues to affirm its historic role as a provider of education to the masses.

UC Davis should congratulate itself for the accomplishment but also be aware that it stands at a crossroads and could lose what positive inroads it has made into social mobility.

Graphic by Jennifer Wu.

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