Response: Spread the Financial Aid Around

Recently, the Acting Director of the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships (OFAS), Christopher Shultz, wrote a piece in the New U to clear up some misconceptions about how UCI apportions financial aid. Although recent studies have found that public research universities are shifting their funding priorities from need-based to merit-based grants that are awarded disproportionately to wealthy students, Mr. Shultz claims that the findings are not true of UCI.

Furthermore, the OFAS is actually in a “partnership” with students and our families to make sure that a university education is affordable without undue burdens of work and debt. To take this claim seriously, I’d like to offer to Mr. Shultz several easy ways that the OFAS can indeed be a “partner” to students.

First, provide students with clear statistics. The Shultz article packed several disjointed figures into one paragraph; a whirling mish-mash of numbers that don’t amount to anything. All that was clear was that about one in twelve need-based grants go to students from families in the top 15 percent of the income population. Why are families who can afford a private school education being given need-based aid? Or, why do one-third of merit-based grants go to those same families?

More importantly, though, Mr. Shultz has ignored the primary finding of the studies. Public research universities “serve disproportionately fewer low-income and minority students than in the past.” That is, the study finds that disproportionate funds go to the wealthiest students. Poorer students may still receive more, in absolute terms, than rich students, but poor students still receive less than is fair, and rich students still receive more than is fair or appropriate. And, further, the studies focus on trends in funding priorities, not a snapshot of current funding apportionment.

This focus on trends is instructive because student fees and debt are not static and do not exist in a vacuum. Mr. Shultz pointed out that the average debt burden is just over $14,000, which is enough to buy a new car. But our debt burden has been growing steadily and will continue to grow as fees increase. How can we weigh the reality of a debt burden against speculative future wages, especially in a recession economy? In an era of high unemployment, job insecurity, and stagnant wages, which are not new conditions for poor and minority students, how can we be expected to shoulder an ever-growing burden of debt?

Even more disturbing, though, is that the trends are not new at all. Indeed, the crowding out of poor and minority students has been going on for much of our lives. UC StatFinder data from 1994 to 2008 show that as UCI has grown in size, it has also grown in exclusivity. While the percentage of students accepted to UCI has dropped about 25 points during that period, acceptance rates have dropped the least for the wealthiest students and the most for the poorest students.

Likewise, while acceptance rates for white and Asian students have dropped a little more than 20 percentage points, acceptance rates have dropped by over a third for black, Hispanic and Native American students. “Race-neutrality” means little more than maintaining the color line, all while claiming to be colorblind.

As a partner to a diverse array of students, OFAS should rethink the value of a “race-neutral” system. As Cheryl Harris, distinguished professor of law at UCLA, wrote, race-neutral policies “speak the formal language of equality, but subordinate equality by vesting the expectations of whites that what is unequal in fact will be regarded as equal in law.” That is, the privileges and unjust advantages granted to students of certain race and class backgrounds are naturalized by these policies and exacerbated by the growth of so-called “merit-based” financial aid programs cited by the Education Trust.

Of course, the Education Trust is not alone in reporting this: even UCI’s own Strategic Plan website has acknowledged the same trend. It seems unlikely that the head of OFAS would be ignorant of the Strategic Plan, especially because it was cited in the article he responded to last week.

Most important to remember in all of this, however, is that public education is not supposed to cost anything in the first place! A public education is neither an investment nor a privilege; it is a social service and a right. The University of California is here to provide a world-class education to  Californians of all backgrounds, but the UC StatFinder shows that families below California’s median household income only make up a quarter of our student body. Whatever the failures of the Regents and the state legislature, UCI’s administration is still not doing their part to ensure access to this vital social service.

The fact of the matter is that such an unequal relationship can never be a partnership. Low-income students who should be getting a free education are being burdened with debt, if they get admitted in the first place. Unless the OFAS changes their priorities, they will continue to fail the California families who most need an affordable, accessible, world-class education.

James is a fourth-year political science, African-American studies and women’s studies triple major. He can be reached at jbliss@uci.edu.