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High tuition, low compassion? Berkeley researchers point to upside of economic diversity

Michael Stoll, SF Public Press — Dec 21 2011 - 11:17am

As perennial tuition increases threaten to shut out students of low-income backgrounds from the University of California, could the school be on the road to making its student body less caring?

That’s just one implication from new psychology research on compassion and economic class from the U.C. Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, which was reported by sometimes Public Press contributor Jeremy Adam Smith on the center’s website Tuesday.

As the price of admission to the state’s premier public university system goes up — as much as 16 percent a year through 2015, according to a proposal from the state Board of Regents this fall — critics argue that the university will lose economic diversity. In October, KALW News interviewed Jonathan Stein, a graduate student in public policy and law at U.C. Berkeley and student liaison to the regents. Stein told KALW’s Holly Kernan that the price of an education will place it beyond even some middle-class families:

... from the current $13,000 which is a dramatic increase from just a couple of years ago, to just four years down the line from now: $22,000 a student. And you could make a very serious argument… In fact I think it’s inescapable that the UC will have completely lost its role as a leader in access and affordability nationwide and public higher education.

A new program from the university to cap tuition increases at 15 percent of household income for middle-class families will help, the Christian Science Monitor reported last Thursday. But the debate over economic fairness and access to education is far from settled.

Now the critics have a solid, scientific reason to emphasize economic diversity in the student population — it makes for more empathetic alumni.

The Greater Good Science Center’s Jennifer Stellar, a graduate fellow investigating emotional differences between the rich and poor, found that student research subjects from poor families were more likely to display compassionate behavior in the lab. The research, published online last week in the journal Emotion, indicate that the wealthy are less emotionally equipped to understand the signs and meaning of adversity.

Through a battery of questions asked of more than 300 U.C. Berkeley students, Stellar and colleagues asked questions that distinguished emotions such as sorrow from those displaying compassion or empathy. “All reported feeling sad in response to the video about families of cancer patients,” Smith wrote. “However, members of the lower class reported higher levels of compassion and empathy as distinct from sorrow.” The more compassionate students also displayed slower heart rates, a measure of emotional preparation for care-giving.

Wealthier students are not necessarily bad people, Stellar said. “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”

When the Board of Regents next sits down to discuss raising tuition rates to avoid “an irreversible decline into mediocrity,” as officials told  KQED News in September, they may also want to consider what they can do to stop the potential hemoraging of compassion among its graduates.

Comments

High tuition to go higher for Californians at UC Berkeley.

Paying more is not a better university. I love University of California (UC) having been a student & lecturer. Like so many I am deeply disappointed by the pervasive failures of Birgeneau from holding the line on rising costs & tuition. On an all in cost, Birgeneau has molded Cal. into the most expensive public university. Faculty wages must reflect California's ability to pay, not what others are paid.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) dismissed many needed cost-cutting options. Birgeneau did not consider freezing vacant faculty positions, increasing class size, requiring faculty to teach more classes, doubling the time between sabbaticals, freezing pay & benefits, reforming pensions & health benefits.
Birgeneau said such faculty reforms would not be healthy for Cal. Exodus of faculty, administrators: who can afford them?
We agree it is far from the ideal situation. Birgeneau cannot expect to do business as usual: raising tuition; granting pay raises & huge bonuses during a weak economy that has sapped state revenues & individual income.
We must act. Chancellor Birgeneau’s campus police deployed violent baton jabs on students protesting increases in tuition. The sky above Cal. will not fall when Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) is ousted.

Email opinions to the UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu