In an environment of declining public funding and rising tuition rates, many public universities in the US are moving toward a “progressive tuition model” that attempts to invest approximately one-third of tuition income into institutional financial aid for lower-income and middle-class students. The objective is to mitigate the cost of rising tuition and keep college affordable. But is this model as currently formulated working? Utilizing data from the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Survey of undergraduates and other data sources, this study explores these issues by focusing on students at the University of California (UC) and 10 research-intensive public institutions that are members of the SERU Consortium. Focusing mostly on survey data from 2014, we find that increases in tuition, and costs related to housing and other living expenses, have not had a significant negative impact on the number of lower-income students attending UC or on their behaviors. Since the onset of the Great Recession, there has been an actual increase in their number—a counterintuitive finding to the general perception that higher tuition equals less access for the economically vulnerable. At the same time, there is evidence of a “middle-class” squeeze, with a marginal drop in the number of students from this economic class. With these and other nuances and caveats discussed in this study, the progressive tuition model appears to have worked in terms of affordability and with only moderate indicators of increased financial stress and changed student behaviors. This study indicates that tuition can and should be a part of the search for a viable funding model for many public universities, like UC, and that demanding lower or no tuition does not appear to be based on any substantial analysis of the correlation of tuition and affordability.
July 2, 2018