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BERKELEY, Calif. — An incoming sophomore at the University of California Riverside, Samantha Yazzie frets about the $20,000 she had to borrow — not for tuition, but for housing during her freshman year alone.

“I worry about paying it back,” Yazzie said.

In the seven years since prices started rising dramatically at California’s public universities, this state has swum against the tide by trying to ensure — more than most others — that its poorest residents can still afford to go to college.

It provides a comparatively large amount of financial aid, while its University of California system campuses offer discounts to lower-income students using, in part, money that comes in from their higher-paying out-of-state and international classmates.

But California’s attempts to keep college affordable mask the reality that the poorest students still struggle more than ever to cover its costs. Even here, rising prices have led three-quarters of the lowest-income UC students to take out loans, often for costs other than tuition — a significantly higher proportion than other income groups. A UC education now eats up nearly two-thirds of the discretionary income of families making $30,000 per year or less, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

“Clearly something is going awry,” said Debbie Cochrane, the institute’s research director.

Related: New policies close off opportunities to college applicants in need of extra help

Low-income college students
John Wilton is UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for administration and finance on Friday, April 10, 2015. Credit: Alison Yin

The net price of college — after financial aid and discounts are subtracted — is rising much faster for lower-income students than for their higher-income counterparts, an analysis by the Hechinger Report and Dallas Morning News revealed.

“If you can’t raise tuition at Berkeley, you drive the best public university in the world into the ground. You need to evolve with the reality of the situation.”

One reason for the inequity is the increase in merit-based rather than need-based scholarships, a system that disproportionately benefits higher-income students with college-educated parents as states and colleges try to keep those students from going elsewhere. Studies have shown many of those affluent students who receive merit aid are not actually high achievers.

The kind of income redistribution practiced by California, where higher-income students essentially subsidize lower-income students by paying full price, has been outright banned in some other states, said Sandy Baum, a professor of higher education administration at George Washington University and an expert on college affordability.

States including Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina, Baum said, now base most financial aid on test scores and grades rather than income, favoring students from well-funded suburban high schools, while New Hampshire and Iowa offer little or no aid at all for public university students.

Related: States moving college scholarship money away from the poor, to the wealthy and middle class

“They’re not doing anything to help low-income students,” Baum said. “I would say California is on the list of better states.”

Yet even though most financial aid there continues to be based on need, low-income students in California are still having trouble keeping up with tuition and fees that, at the 10-campus University of California system, have nearly doubled in less than 10 years, to $13,300. Total costs now average $34,500 a year before financial aid, and that includes living expenses that are higher than in most other states.

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The tuition increases have not affected UC enrollment; the system continues to see a record number of applications.

The flagship, research-oriented, 240,000-student UC system is at the top of the California higher-education hierarchy. Then there’s the teaching-centric California State University and its 23 campuses, where prices for the 460,000 students are significantly lower than at UC. The state’s 113 community colleges serve more than two million students for an even lower price, and fees are waived for low-income students.

Related: Nonprofits step in to help students that colleges allow to ‘slip through the cracks’

Anecdotal evidence suggests the higher prices are persuading at least some high-performing students to forgo the UC system in favor of those other, cheaper options, which also have fewer resources to devote to them; the California State system spends less than half as much per student, and the community colleges less than a quarter, than the UC campuses do, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Even in a state that helps low-income students, three-quarters have to take out loans, significantly more than other income groups.

Katherine Heater, a second-generation UC Berkeley alumna, has a 16-year-old son now considering his options.

“He’s thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll get a job and work for a while. Maybe I’ll go to junior college,’” said Heater, an adjunct harpsichord instructor at UC Berkeley. “That’s really different from when I was growing up.”

This year, in a deal between Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor and U.S. homeland security director, the university system agreed to freeze tuition for two years in return for more state money.

But most agree it’s only a matter of time before prices rise again.

Related: Colleges give drifting students maps to help them find their way to graduation

The annual “political lottery” — the university bargaining with state officials over money and funding — can’t be sustained, said John Wilton, Berkeley’s vice chancellor for administration and finance.

Stopping the universities from raising tuition may be attractive to politicians and students, Wilton said, but it also may have a side effect: lowering the quality of education.

“We have a real problem,” he said. “If you can’t raise tuition at Berkeley, you drive the best public university in the world into the ground. You need to evolve with the reality of the situation.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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