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On what should have been a carefree day of reconnecting with friends and settling into new classes recently, more than two dozen students at the University of California, Berkeley, sat in uneasy silence outside the financial aid office.
The airy room on the second floor of Sproul Hall took on the desperate feeling of an unemployment office, with students waiting their turn to plead for emergency loans.
“I want to have enough money to pay for school,” Daniel Seman, a junior majoring in English and music, said as he waited to see a financial aid counselor last Wednesday. “My mom is really worried.”
Mr. Seman, 23, said he had already spent an emergency loan of $500 from the university on books and food. But faced with about $7,230 for tuition and fees this semester, roughly $1,000 more than the fall semester last year, he was back in line trying to get another loan.
Faced with drastic cutbacks in state financing, U.C. tuition increased 18 percent this school year, and the university’s Board of Regents is expected to vote on a plan to raise tuition 8 percent to 16 percent a year through 2015-16. With the cost of rent, food and books also soaring, more students like Mr. Seman are scrambling to be able to afford their education.
The financial aid department is hustling to meet the increased demand, and some officials and students worry that the situation could undercut the university’s reputation as one of the nation’s foremost low-cost public education systems.
For the first time this year, the University of California will receive more of its money from student tuition than from the state — a shift that will inevitably put more pressure on students from middle- and low-income backgrounds.
In a letter to parents and students about the recent tuition increase, Mark Yudof, the University of California president, struck an apologetic note, acknowledging the “economic uncertainties and hardship” facing many families.
“No one should feel they have to leave U.C. due to rising tuition and fees,” Mr. Yudof wrote in the letter, dated July 27. “I implore you to discuss your financial aid options with your campus financial aid office.”
Systemwide, roughly three-quarters of undergraduates applied for financial aid this year, up from two-thirds three years ago. With demand expected to grow, the university is considering new measures, including outsourcing some financial aid services, boosting corporate fund-raising and expanding aid for needy students.
Among the proposals is a plan to cover all tuition for students from families with incomes of less than $90,000 a year. Currently, students’ families must earn less than $80,000 to qualify.
“We need to be creative in dealing with the additional demand from students,” said Kate Jeffery, director of the Student Financial Support Unit for the 10-campus system.
Last week, Richard Blum, a University of California Regent, suggested a public fund-raising campaign to offset cuts in state financing. The University of California, Berkeley, has added three financial aid counselors to its staff, bringing the total to about 50 this year, and it put in an upgraded computer system to process applications.
But students say any enhancements to the university’s financial aid still will not be enough.
Elizabeth Beltran is a junior from a low-income family whose fees are covered by the university. Because of increases in student housing costs this year, she had to move back home with her family in East Oakland.
“I won’t be able to hang out with friends or get to go to study groups late at night,” said Ms. Beltran, who needs financial aid to buy a laptop she could use from home.
The steep tuition increases forced Mario Lopez to postpone graduation by a year, until next summer.
Last spring, Mr. Lopez, a 23-year-old political science major, raised nearly $2,500 from private donors. He also took an extra job over the summer and invited a roommate to move in last month, cutting his rent in half.
“I really wanted to continue my education, so there was really no alternative,” Mr. Lopez said. “It has definitely been sort of a love and hate relationship. I love U.C., but I hate that I had to go through these tough circumstances.”