Higher education should not be free even if the funds permit it, according to the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.
Tuition fees for in-state students at the public university have almost doubled in three years. But Robert Birgeneau, who steps down at the end of the year, told Times Higher Education that he does not mind tuition going up for the wealthy.
"I have a personal guideline that people should pay at least one-third of the actual cost of education if they are able to afford it," he said.
People from low-income families have a significantly lower probability of going to university than those from high-income families, Professor Birgeneau said.
"If you do any economic analysis, if education is free it simply represents a transfer of income from poor to rich...I think that's a social injustice," he added. "I know this goes against conventional wisdom, and you try to explain that to people in countries that have zero tuition ... but mostly that's because they are from privileged backgrounds."
Tuition fees at UC Berkeley rose from $7,126 in 2008-09 to $12,834 in 2011-12. The figure rises to more than $32,000 (£20,480) when costs such as campus housing, transportation and books are included.
In 2009, fee hikes were met with violent student protests and occupation of the campus.
But according to Professor Birgeneau, the average basic fee paid, taking into account financial aid, works out at around $4,500 a year. Any student whose family earns less than $80,000 a year not only pays no fees but also receives a grant, he added.
Overall, Berkeley has the same number of students qualifying for federal Pell Grant aid (aimed at students from families earning less than $45,000 a year) as the eight Ivy League institutions put together, Professor Birgeneau said.
Fees rose at Berkeley in response to drastic state cuts, which have reduced California's contribution to the university's budget from around 30 per cent in 2005 to 10 per cent today. According to the 70-year-old physicist, such cuts are a reflection of a change in the American public's mood.
"Until relatively recently, public opinion has been that higher education was primarily a public good. But polling states that...[the people] see it as a private good, that the person being educated profits most," he said. "In my view, politicians are responding to that."
At the University of Colorado, state funding has fallen to under 5 per cent of the budget, while in others the figure remains at around 30 per cent, he said. "Each has [made] different progress down this track, but it is a trend."