LOS ANGELES — The University of California, Berkeley, announced Wednesday that it would offer far more financial aid to middle-class students starting next fall, with families earning up to $140,000 a year expected to contribute no more than 15 percent of their annual income, in what experts described as the most significant such move by a public institution.
As state budget cuts have led to rising tuition and fees at the University of California and other prestigious campuses across the nation, the middle class has increasingly been squeezed out of what was long seen as higher education’s best balance between quality and affordability.
At Berkeley, officials said, the number of low-income and wealthy students has grown over the last several years, while the number from middle-class families has remained flat. That has raised concerns that some of the state’s best and brightest are choosing private schools whose generous financial aid can erase differentials in sticker price or not enrolling at all. The cost of a year at Berkeley has risen sharply to $32,000.
“We see early signs that middle-income families who cannot access existing assistance programs are straining to meet college costs,” said the Berkeley chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau. “As a public institution we feel strongly that we need to sustain and expand access across the socioeconomic spectrum.”
While several elite private universities — including the Ivy League triumvirate of Harvard, Princeton and Yale — offer similar programs for families with incomes up to $200,000, experts said that Berkeley was the first public university to do so. For the most part, public colleges have focused on merit scholarships to lure top students and aid for the poorest families to ensure access, but many now worry that approach has left out a wide group of families.
“Berkeley has really just changed the game,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents the nation’s large research universities. “Other schools will follow if they can, but the problem is that most universities don’t have the resources to match it. On the other hand, given how competitive colleges are with each other, they are certainly going to try.”
At the University of Washington, where tuition, room and board amount to about $24,000, officials said they were trying to be creative with aid because they know that earnings are not increasing as fast as tuition amid cuts in education financing by the state.
“We’re looking at our families and seeing that there is more financial need, not as many options in terms of a family’s ability to borrow, and trying to find a way to make it work,” said Kay Lewis, assistant vice president for student life at the University of Washington. “It really is an issue of access and trying to ensure that access for middle- and low-income students is something we are constantly thinking about.”
Berkeley’s definition of middle-class in creating its new financial aid program is a family with income between $80,000 and $140,000 a year. On top of the parental contribution of 15 percent of income, students would also have to pay about $8,000 per year — generally a combination of loans, work-study and private scholarships. At the bottom end of the spectrum, that would make for a total payment of $20,000, a 37.5 percent discount off the $32,000 total of tuition, room and board for California residents. On the upper end, it would be about $29,000, or a 10 percent discount.
(Out-of-state students, who make up 30 percent of Berkeley’s freshman class this year, will get comparable discounts on the first $32,000 of tuition and fees, but still have to pay an additional $23,000.)
The announcement came a day after Gov. Jerry Brown of California announced a $2.2 billion budget shortfall, and another severe round of cuts to state colleges and universities. A report by the College Board published this year showed that California’s public universities had the nation’s largest jump for in-state tuition in 2011-12.
Although there are only a few anecdotal reports of middle-class students actually dropping out because of rising college costs, the issue has become a rallying cry of Occupy protesters around the country. Berkeley officials, like their counterparts elsewhere, are increasingly worried that some of the state’s brightest students, who in previous generations would have chosen their campus because it was a bargain, are now being lured by private universities with big endowments to underwrite aid.
Indeed, in New Jersey, Seton Hall University announced a new plan this fall to give early applicants with top academic credentials a discount of up to two-thirds — making the cost comparable to that of Rutgers University, the elite public institution a few highway exits away.
Mark Kantrowitz, who tracks school aid programs on his Web site, FinAid.org, said, “When tuition is going up, that can have a chilling effect, but something like this has an emotional effect that works as a recruiting tool.” He added, “It sends the message that we know everybody struggles to pay for college.”
Berkeley officials said the program was expected to cost $12 million a year and would be paid for from out-of-state and international student tuition, as well as private donations. Officials said they had recently received an $8 million donation for financial aid and expect to raise more.
Fewer than 2,000 students from families with incomes over $80,000 received financial aid this year, officials said. They estimated that under the new policy, an additional 4,000 middle-class students would receive grants ranging from $3,600 to $16,000 next year. Officials said that the program was devised so that they could increase aid — most likely reducing the 15 percent contribution — if they raised more money, but acknowledged that they could also end up changing in the other direction if money fell short.