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UC Berkeley Chancellor Keeps Hope Alive Despite Budget Challenges

New America Media, News Report, Nicole Ely Posted: Feb 20, 2009

Editor's Note: UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau told ethnic media that despite the budget cuts Berkeley would try to bring in more international students and keep the costs down for those in need reports NAM contributor Nicole Ely.

SAN FRANCISCO Despite the financial obstacles stemming from the current economic crisis, administrators of the University of California, Berkeley are working hard to keep their costs within reach of low-income students, officials said Wednesday.

UC Chancellor Birgenau
Affordability and accessibility were key issues at a media briefing on the higher education system organized by UC Berkeley and New America Media. Though admissions this academic year remain level, the number of applicants from under-represented groups increased for first-year students and those transferring from community colleges. Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau said he aims to keep the cost down for those in need.

"Our main responsibility is to educate exceptionally talented students, regardless of who they are," Birgeneau said. "An education at UC Berkeley is possible for them, but they have to work hard."

Thanks to a provision in the federal $787 billion stimulus bill that increased Pell Grant awards from $500 to $5,350, UC Berkeley will be able to bolster financial aid and ease the stress of budget cuts.

To receive a Pell Grant, the student's annual family income must be less than $45,000. Of the 25,000 undergraduate students at UC Berkeley nearly 8,000 receive Pell Grants, according to Birgeneau.

"It turns out that at Berkeley we have more students on Pell Grants than all the Ivy League schools put together," he said. "We take great pride in that, because their education at UC Berkeley is their future conduit in society."

The just approved state budget will slash nearly $15 billion in spending, with all three systemscommunity, state and university--taking a big hit, raising fears that financial aid for low-income students will be cut just when they need it most.

UC Chancellor Birgenau
But Birgeneau said that UC Berkeley was making every effort to assist students from families that can't afford the $26,586 yearly tuition and fees for a full-time resident student. At the beginning of February, the UC Regents approved a financial plan that would eliminate student fees for households earning less than $60,000 a year, Birgeneau said.

Known as the Blue and Gold Opportunity, the policy will apply to California residents who submit a financial aid application on time, apply for a Cal Grant, are enrolled for an entire academic year, and are in first four years of attendance. Students at community colleges are also eligible.

UC Berkeley will also make a substantial contribution to students' costs of living in addition to the Blue and Gold Opportunity, said Birgeneau.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Harry Le Grande added that the university wanted to give low-income students an environment where they can thrive outside of the classroom.

"There is some good news on the financial aid front," Le Grande said.

Le Grande explained that affordable programs were possible because UC Berkeley is a direct lending school, meaning students receive their loans directly from the university instead of a lending bank.

"Before the end of January, we were able to fund all our students without IOUs," Le Grande said. "The only students who were not able to get that were students who had missing information in their applications."

However, even with federal funding, UC Berkeley has had to be resourceful. The university is currently in the early stages of a private fundraising campaign to raise $3 billion. In September, Birgeneau announced that the University had already raised $180 million. Although private funding worked well in the past, there will be new challenges if budget cuts persist.

Responding to a question about possible cuts in Asian American Studies and in Asian language classes, Birgeneau said that a similar concern last year was a "false alarm," but that "if the state continues to cut our budget, can we guarantee that for the future? The answer is no."

Another concern was how foreign students would be affected by cuts at the university, but the chancellor asserted that they were among his priorities.

"When I first came to Berkeley I thought the number of international students was too low," Birgeneau said. "So for the sake of the education of our students, we are increasing progressively the number of international students at the school."

The UC Berkeley officials said their greatest fear was that the public education system, including K-12, would not sustain itself in the event of an extended economic crisis.

"Those students are our pipeline," Le Grande said, and if we fall, the rest of the country will follow suit."

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