As the flagship campus of the UC system, UC Berkeley straddles a middle ground between public universities and top-tier private universities. Though UC Berkeley is sometimes compared to Ivy League schools in quality, it stands out among both private and public schools for its relative affordability, large enrollment and diverse academic offerings. To examine what makes UC Berkeley unique, The Daily Californian investigated the paths that UC Berkeley students take after graduation and the impact that college has on their careers.
For students from lower-income backgrounds, higher education is a powerful gateway to climbing the income ladder. When compared to liberal arts colleges such as Amherst College or Ivy League schools such as Cornell University, the UC system enrolls a more diverse student body that includes undergraduates from all income brackets. Though its academic resources are often stretched thin, UC Berkeley provides a high-quality education to thousands of students each year who otherwise could not afford one. “The public mission has historically been to ensure access to students,” said Tolani Britton, an assistant professor of education at UC Berkeley. “Today, (that) goal of access is fraught. … There’s so many students that want admission, even with the expansion of seats at UC Berkeley.”
The cost of attending a four-year public university jumped 35% over the last decade, according to the College Board. During the Great Recession, state funds allocated for public universities shrunk as tax revenue slowed and governments scrambled to patch economic emergencies. Today's public universities are increasingly dependent on tuition and private donors for assistance. UC Berkeley is no exception, as declining funding from the state of California and the rising cost of living in the Bay Area strain both students and staff. “There’s been relatively small rises in tuition in the last five years. … Since tuition is the dominant part of the university’s core revenue, that means that the net increase in revenues to the university is like 1% or 2%, whereas academic inflation is more in the 4-5% level,” said George Blumenthal, former UC Santa Cruz chancellor and director of the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education. “Berkeley, like many public universities around the country over the last few years, has been struggling with this mathematics. Something’s got to give.” Over the next few years, COVID-19 will only add to UC Berkeley’s financial woes. “The UC system, so far, has committed to maintaining jobs. … Services to students, for example, have to be delivered differently — not just teaching, but also counseling services, advising. Those needs don’t go away just because people are at home,” Blumenthal said. “Revenues will be down, but costs won’t.” Against this background of financial troubles for universities, U.S. student debt ballooned to $1.6 trillion in 2020. Student loans can burden households decades beyond graduation and are a hot-button issue in the upcoming election. Higher unemployment and financial troubles sparked by COVID-19 add to students’ uncertainties about their futures. Debt also impacts students’ experiences while enrolled in college. “The amount of debt that you take on has implications for the kind of jobs you’re considering, as well as your choices around both grad school and working,” Britton said. “I think about whether or not students $50,000 in debt are willing to become teachers, outside of programs that might incentivize them through debt reduction, … knowing the salary of a public teacher in California.”
Though student debt has risen around the country, UC Berkeley is an exception. The average financial debt of each graduating class has remained steady or declined since 2010 and dipped in 2016. UC Berkeley spokesperson Adam Ratliff attributed the trend mostly to financial aid. “Nearly 7 out of 10 undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid and scholarships,” Ratliff said in an email. Data shows UC Berkeley’s average financial aid package per student rose from $21,587 in the 2010-11 academic year to $25,162 in 2015-16.
As a state school, UC Berkeley enrolls mostly California residents who tend to remain in the Bay Area after graduating college. This contrasts with private universities, which attract more students from across the United States. Ultimately, more alumni from private institutions return to their home communities, rather than clustering near their university. This trend reflects UC Berkeley’s role as a public school committed to serving California citizens. Here, we investigate the geographic distribution of the graduating classes of 2017-2019. We broke the data down by college to visualize the differing paths of graduates based on their specialties. Depending on the types of careers students decide to pursue, they may end up in different places.
The vast majority of new grads decide to stay in the Bay Area. As seen in the chart above, more than half of graduates from all six schools stay in the Bay Area. Students in the College of Chemistry are the least likely to stay, while students in the College of Environmental Design are most likely to remain, with 78% planning to reside in the Bay immediately after graduation. In this way, UC Berkeley resembles other public institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin, where new grads tend to stay close to their alma mater. UC Berkeley differs from elite private colleges, where more than 40% of graduates end up more than 500 miles from their college, according to Emsi, a data firm. Below, you can see a visualization of the places new UC Berkeley alumni live outside the Bay Area. In the diagram, you can follow links from left to right to see the percentage of students from a certain college planning to live in each area on the right side. Thicker links denote more students moving to that area.