The short version: rich schools (e.g. Ivies) are giving more financial aid to richer students (families with annual incomes $120k-180k) and capping everyone's out-of-pocket costs at 10% of the family's income.
But since most people can't go to Harvard or Yale (this is not a question of ability but of space -- these are small schools), most students are still screwed. If you go to a cheaper state school (Birgeneau cites Cal's $25k/year versus Harvard's $45k), you still might wind up paying more for the state school, because State U has less money for financial aid.
Birgeneau's proposed solution is, naturally, to give state schools more money. The model he envisions is alumni donations matched by state funds. For instance, he muses, what if all of Cal's living alumni donated $1000 apiece, just once?
Birgeneau is living in a dream world if he thinks alumni really have $1000 lying around that they want to give to Cal, especially young alumni. On one hand, Birgeneau recognizes that paying for college punches students in the gut. But then, on the other, he supposes that once they graduate it's magically all better, and everybody's rolling in cash (the "B.A. = instant wealth" myth). I suspect that young alumni who find themselves with spare money will do things like try to pay off their $30,000 or more in student loans.
The problem that Birgeneau is fingering -- i.e. that Harvard et al.'s policies, however laudable, do nothing for most college students -- is real. But there's a certain bang-for-your-buck mentality that seems to underwrite his outrage -- if you got into an Ivy, you could get a better education for less money! But not everyone can get into an Ivy League school! They should totally get more checkers at this Trader Joe's; the lines are so long! Why can't I get my cheap, good
We tend to treat college as a gateway into the middle class, and college costs boatloads of money. Everybody knows that if you don't have the cultural capital of a B.A., you're doomed to poverty forever, so everybody goes for broke trying to get that B.A. in the faith that the gain in cultural capital will one day translate into actual capital.
Imagine if employment depended on skills rather than credentials. Imagine if you could learn things, really learn them, without getting an official bureaucratic stamp of approval, and have your learning valued over the stamp. Conversely, imagine if getting a degree were about really learning things instead of acquiring a credential.
We talk about access to education as if
a. it would solve everybody's problems, and
b. "education" necessarily meant accredited institutions of higher learning.
Unequal access to higher institutions is a problem, yes. But Birgeneau and everyone else is glossing over the cause of that unequal access, namely ridiculous gaps in wealth. "Education" is supposed to be the great equalizer, the thing that allows people from poor backgrounds to "make it"; education, in short, is supposed to rectify class inequality. In fact, it tends to reproduce class inequality. Perhaps we should work on that class inequality thing a little more directly. We could start by not considering expensive credentials the sine qua non of employment.
Also, what Michelle said.