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Concerns raised over distribution of state funds for Underground Scholars

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Program directors and community members have raised concerns about the distribution of funds to UC campuses, alleging that the current plan is flawed.

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OCTOBER 05, 2022

For the first time, the state of California will provide $15 million in ongoing funding to several academic recruitment and retention programs that support undocumented students, current and former foster youth and current and former incarcerated students. However, both program directors and community members have raised concerns about how the funds will potentially be distributed.

According to a Berkeley News article, Hope Scholars — which supports current and former foster youth, probation youth and those orphaned before age 18 — will receive $6 million; Berkeley Underground Scholars and similar programs — which create a pathway into higher education for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system-impacted individuals — will share $4 million; and the Undocumented Student Program will receive $5 million.

While the allocation of the state funds is currently being determined by the University of California Office of the President, or UCOP, concerns have been raised over UCOP’s potential funding distribution model.

Fabrizio Mejia, the assistant vice chancellor in the division of equity and inclusion at UC Berkeley, said he is skeptical whether UCOP’s methodology will adequately amplify systemwide efforts of the Underground Scholars program across all UC campuses.

According to Mejia, UCOP’s current methodology is to use “baseline funding” for each UC campus paired with “equity”; however, Mejia said he is not in full agreement with UCOP’s methodology and that it should also take into account how many students each campus is serving.

“If we don’t have a sense of supporting each other and creating more spots for formerly incarcerated students, then we miss out on the opportunity to leverage each other’s strengths,” Mejia said. “The idea is we want to make sure that everything is open source, from our job description, to our trainings and to our methodology.”

Though Mejia noted the new ongoing state funding is “wonderful” and that he sees “nothing but possibility,” noting that it will expand services, he is not alone in his skepticism.

Azadeh Zohrabi, the executive director for Berkeley Underground Scholars, also raised concerns about the methodology, noting that systemwide coordination for the Underground Scholars program is currently not being supported by UCOP.

She added that the current methodology will potentially use the number of Pell recipients or the number of undergraduate students to determine need, which does not consider the “actual need” on each campus.

Zohrabi said that unlike the undocumented and foster youth programs, which have been systemwide for years and have data on how many students they serve, Underground Scholars does not because UCOP has allegedly not supported them. She added that she advocates for UC-sponsored data collection to determine the actual number of formerly incarcerated students in order to allocate the funding.

Zohrabi noted that under the current methodology, campus will receive the same amount of money — $400,000 — as UC Davis even though UC Berkeley serves around 100 formerly incarcerated or system-impacted students, while UC Davis has “maybe 15.”

Originally at the request of the state legislature, Zohrabi said she wrote the budget language for the distribution of the funds. The original language required UCOP to transfer the $4 million to Berkeley Underground Scholars, who would then allocate the funds to the other campuses based on need.

According to UCOP spokesperson Erika Cervantes, the language of the legislation requires that the funding be dispersed “in consultation” with Underground Scholars directors and campus coordinators.

However, Zohrabi alleged, after sending the budget language to UCOP in May, she was told she wasn’t supposed to have done so — it was UCOP’s responsibility.

According to Zohrabi, the Underground Scholars program is in “jeopardy” if UCOP does not allocate the funding to support statewide coordination. She added that she recently talked to the state legislature to discuss her concerns so that they can clarify their legislative intent.

The university is “way behind” the state and national trends of serving current and formerly incarcerated students, Zohrabi alleged. She explained that California State Universities and community colleges have more financial support for this population.

“The UC is really the last in the public higher education systems in California to get this funding,” Zohrabi said. “If it wasn’t for myself, our students and the UC Student Association, we would not have received it because UCOP has been uninterested in supporting the student population.”

She alleged that UCOP has “deliberatively dismissed” the program and that it’s wrong for UCOP to make the decision on how to allocate the funding since they don’t have adequate insight into how to best serve the interests of incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students.

A program director for a UC Underground Scholars program on a different UC campus, who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, also expressed disagreement with the current methodology of the distribution of funds that UCOP is considering. The program director advocated for the Berkeley Underground Scholars program to manage funding distribution, which would then help build a statewide program.

The program director noted that under the current methodology, each campus could disband the program and use its funds for other purposes, despite the fact that the funding was meant for the Underground Scholars program.

According to Cervantes, the money allocated for the Underground Scholars Program must be used for that program specifically.

According to UC Student Association, or UCSA, President Alex Niles, Zohrabi and other program directors had developed an adequate spending plan based on their expertise and experience running these programs. Niles said that he is also concerned by efforts by UCOP to develop an alternative plan which would “worsen outcomes and cause needless delays.”

Niles added that UCSA is concerned that UCOP plans to send funding to campus administrations rather than directly to program directors, and that UCOP is not directing campuses to allocate the full amount of funding they receive to Undergraduate Scholars Initiatives, or USIs.

Niles said that spending any amount of this funding on anything other than USIs would be a violation of the state’s intent for this money and a “betrayal” to formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students.

“UCOP should have honored the agreement it made with USI program directors to send funding directly to UC Berkeley’s USI, which would have avoided exactly this situation as it’s developing and instead ensured efficient and effective allocation,” Niles said in an email.

Cervantes said that the university is grateful for the new state funding since it will expand access to higher education.

Responding to questions regarding concerns of UCOP’s funding distribution model, Cervantes said that the university is still in the process of determining campus allocations.

“We look forward to engaging with and continuing to support the Underground Scholars programs at each of our campuses,” Cervantes said in an email.

Contact Victor Corona at 

LAST UPDATED

OCTOBER 05, 2022