Tom Hayden recently wrote an article, entitled "We Can't Afford to Be Quiet About the Rising Cost of College," in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Hayden began by saying, "Students today, however — even those who hold two part-time jobs — fall tens of thousands of dollars into debt, a burden that limits their career choices."
I'm sure this is happening at some schools, but it's not as common as people think at UC. Across all students graduating in 2007-2008, less than 12% had more than $20K of debt. For students from families with less than $23K family income, that number rose to 21%. Less than 3% had debt of $30K or more overall, less than 4% for students under $24K family income. (As an aside, the debt load for under-23K$ students will drop a lot if undocumented students were eligible for financial aid, which is why that's being recommended to the Gould Commission; were that the case, it's estimated that 14% would have more than $20K debt, and less than 2% would have more than $30K.
"The value of the past lies in remembering how recently higher education was affordable, even cheap. It's not inevitable that a college education today costs so much. Undergraduate education is virtually free at the Sorbonne or the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and a year at Oxford costs no more than community colleges charge here. The choices we have made as a country—to relentlessly privatize our public institutions; to eventually spend three trillion dollars, by some estimates, on the war in Iraq instead of on our public universities; to bail out billionaires on Wall Street while hitting students and their families with repeated tuition increases—are choices with consequences that we have to rethink or accept."
There's another choice we've made, that is much more relevant: We support the entire student cost, not just tuition.
California students with parent income under $60K don't pay tuition/fees. (There are holes in this at the level of 2-3% of those students, though; see mention of undocumented students above.) Back in the Golden Past of the 60's & 70's, they would have paid $120/$240/$540 depending on year, which corresponds to $860/$1520/$2756 now, but they don't pay tuition/fees now. So for those students, roughly half of all UC students, the situation is better now that the "tuition free" Golden Past. It's actually much better now, because most of those students are getting money for living expenses, books, etc, from the federal government, state of California and UC. We write checks of up to $8K to students for their living expenses.
University grant support for living expenses was very rare in the 60's and 70's, where students and their families were responsible for their own living arrangements and costs. A much larger fraction lived at home. When somebody tells me about "Attending Berkeley for $240," I try to ask how they paid their living expenses. It's a great conversation starter, because I often hear interesting stories of paying for room & board by being the breakfast cook at a fraternity, or working at the Oakland Tribune, or typing theses, etc. Students in 1974 worked more hours, on average, then they do now; low income students worked many more hours than they do now.
For the students with family income in the lowest third, both UC as a whole and Berkeley specifically are more affordable now than they were then.
So who's really hurting? Specifically, over the past 5 years, who's average non-zero student borrowing has gone up? Whose parents are borrowing more? Who's working more hours? The answers to those questions are the blocks of parent income from $89k-$112K, $112K-above, and $93K-$139K respectively. (The different measures are grouped differently in the published data, hence the funny bounds. I've left "independent" students, mostly older transfer students, out of this because their situation is much more complicated; most have an unchanged situation, some are worse off.)
At the same time, these are the people who are providing most of the "return to aid" money that funds UC grants. Because of their structure, federal and state grants basically go to pay tuition/fees of the students who are eligible for them. The aid over that, for increasing support for rising living expenses, mostly comes from UC itself. The majority of that aid comes from "return to aid fund," the 1/3 of tuition/fees increases, etc, that are dedicated to financial aid. Most of that is paid by parents with family incomes of $90K to $160K. (There are students with family income above that, about 1/4 of the net payers, but it's hard to get information about the negative impact, if any, of recent funding changes. Non-resident students actually pay more than they do, but I've omitted them from the totals because I don't have enough information on them either.)
How far can this go? How much can we ask of these people before we're denying them access to the University? Those are judgment calls, on which reasonable people can differ.