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The University of California, Berkeley has come to the rescue of the middle income student.  Berkeley has introduced the Middle Class Access Plan (MCap) aimed at dependent undergraduate students whose family’s gross income ranges from $80,000 to $140,000.  The plan caps tuition at 15 percent of the parents’ income, allows for typical assets and includes tuition, fees and expenses such as room, board and books.

An estimated 6,000 UC Berkeley undergraduates will benefit from MCap, which will begin awarding financial aid in the 2012-13 school year.  Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Birgeneau hailed the MCap as “the first program of this sort at any public university in the United States.”

Berkeley’s actions are commendable and certainly a step in the right direction, but the fact that MCap is the first and only program of its kind in the public education system is disheartening.  Tuition has increased over 300 percent in the last ten years and has seriously outpaced middle income salaries and the cost of living, but the administration of state and federal grants and other aid has ignored the needs of this student population.  It is not about pitting low income families against middle income families; it is about ensuring access to a quality education to those who have fallen between the cracks in a system that has failed to keep pace with the economy.

So why hasn’t more been done to ensure access to a quality public education for this student population?  Certainly, recent funding cuts to public education are serious cause for concern, but as the battle for funds continues, students from middle income families fall deeper and deeper into debt.  Some have turned to community college and state colleges or deferred their education because they cannot afford the increasing cost of a UC education.

In support of MCap, UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Harry LeGrande said, “Today the cost of attendance is at a level that can be easily accommodated only by affluent families.  Even as we continue to advocate for increased state support, we feel the need to address the very real issues of our middle-class families.”

If 6,000 students will benefit from MCap at Berkeley, how many can benefit at other UC campuses?  How long will it take before relief finds its way to students at UCR?  These UC students struggle to make ends meet because the dollar no longer represents what it did 10 years ago, as the cost of education continues to climb exponentially.  But there is no DREAM ACT for them, and no one is fighting their fight, at least until now.  The sad reality is that this effort may be too little and too late for those who have fallen victim to a system that has ignored their need for financial assistance over recent years.

According to the University of California website, “The 10 campuses of the University of California open their doors to all who work hard and dream big.  These campuses are home to more than 222,000 students, and in turn, to their parents and families making them part of the UC family.  Through its teaching, research and public service, UC drives California’s economy and leads the world in new directions.”  Maybe Berkeley can lead the other nine campuses in reaching out to a member of our family in dire need of financial assistance.