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Concerned about College Affordability, Satisfied with Quality

Majority Say Institutions Should Do More To Ensure Student Housing Is Affordable

SAN FRANCISCO, November 1, 2017—Many Californians say the public higher education system in California is going in the wrong direction, but they are more likely to express concern about affordability than about the quality of the state’s colleges and universities. These are among the key findings of an annual statewide survey on higher education released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Asked about the direction of public higher education, 45 percent of adults and a majority of likely voters (53%) say it is generally going in the wrong direction (right direction: 46% adults, 37% likely voters). In the view of 45 percent of adults and half of likely voters (51%), the system needs major changes.

Most state residents (56%) say affordability is a big problem in California’s public colleges and universities. Although most adults (61%) say that almost anyone who needs financial help can get loans and financial aid, large majorities say that the price of college keeps students who are qualified and motivated from attending (75%) and that students have to borrow too much money to pay for their college education (79%). An overwhelming majority of residents (85%) say colleges and universities should do more to make sure that all students have affordable housing options.

“In response to the state’s housing crisis, Californians want colleges and universities to do more to make sure that students have affordable options,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.

In contrast to Californians’ views about college affordability, just 18 percent of adults say overall quality in the state’s public colleges and universities is a big problem. Solid majorities of adults give excellent or good ratings to each branch of the state’s higher education system: community colleges (68%), California State University (CSU) (65%), and University of California (UC) (63%). The ratings for the community colleges and CSU have increased slightly since November 2011 (62% community colleges, 56% CSU, 59% UC).

Most Californians (62% adults, 59% likely voters) say the level of state funding for the public higher education system is not high enough. Across parties, Democrats (70%) and independents (64%) are far more likely than Republicans (43%) to say the current level of state funding is not adequate. At the same time, about a third of residents (32%) and 40 percent of likely voters say the state’s public colleges and universities waste a lot of money. An additional 36 percent of adults and 38 percent of likely voters say these institutions waste some money.

Baldassare summed up: “Many say the public higher education system is going in the wrong direction and needs to change, with concerns being raised about affordability, funding, and spending.”

How would Californians increase funding if the state government said it needed more money for the higher education system? An overwhelming majority of adults (79%) are unwilling to increase student fees. Across parties, regions, and demographic groups, majorities oppose a fee increase. A majority of Californians (53%) are also unwilling to pay higher taxes. A majority of Democrats (57%) say they would pay higher taxes, but fewer independents (40%) and Republicans (26%) are willing to do so. Less than half across income and racial/ethnic groups are willing to pay higher taxes. Californians are more supportive of a potential state bond measure for construction projects in the higher education system. Most (57%) say they would vote yes, with majorities across regions as well as age and education groups in favor. However, fewer than half of whites (47%) and those with household incomes of $80,000 or more (49%) would vote yes on a bond measure for higher education construction projects.

Half Are Very Concerned about Immigration Enforcement and Undocumented Students

The survey asks about a number of other issues that have surfaced on campuses around the nation. In the wake of stepped-up federal immigration enforcement, half of Californians (51%) say they are very concerned that these efforts will affect undocumented college and university students, including those with DACA status. Most Californians (57%) also say that the racial justice issues being raised on campus today are very important to them. There is a wide partisan divide on these questions: Democrats (62%) are far more likely than Republicans (30%) to say they are very concerned about the impact of immigration enforcement. And Democrats (70%) are far more likely than Republicans (28%) to say that racial justice issues raised on campus are very important to them.

Majorities of Californians say they are dissatisfied with the way college and university officials are handling three other issues:

  • Free speech. A slim majority of Californians (52%) are dissatisfied with the way campus officials are handling this issue (39% satisfied). Republicans (69%) are more likely than independents (55%) and Democrats (47%) to be dissatisfied. Across education and income groups, about half are dissatisfied, and the prevalence of this perception increases with age.
  • Sexual assault. A solid majority (64%) are dissatisfied with the way campus officials are handling this issue. Across parties and regions and across age, education, and income groups, majorities express this opinion.
  • Hate crimes. Most Californians (57%) are also dissatisfied with the handling of hate crimes; majorities across parties and regions as well as age, education, and income groups hold this view.

When asked about the impact that colleges and universities are having on the way things are going in the country these days, 59 percent of Californians say the effect is positive. There are sharp differences across parties: 70 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents say colleges and universities are having a positive effect, compared to just 38 percent of Republicans.

“Reflecting the nation’s polarization, Californians are divided along party lines when asked about the impact of college and the way free speech is handled by campus officials,” Baldassare said.

Is College Necessary? Many Don’t Think So

Californians express their concerns about higher education at a time when they are divided about the necessity of college. Half of adults (50%) and 43 percent of likely voters say that a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world, while 48 percent of adults and 55 percent of likely voters say there are many ways to succeed without a college education.

Partisans hold very different opinions on this question. Half of Democrats (51%) say a college education is necessary, while most Republicans (67%) and independents (59%) say there are many other ways to succeed. There are also strong differences across racial/ethnic groups. Two-thirds of Latinos (67%), 54 percent of Asian Americans, and 51 percent of African Americans say college is necessary. Just 35 percent of whites express this view. The belief that college is necessary is more widely held among those in households with annual incomes of $40,000 or less (59%) than among those with higher incomes (40% $40,000 to $80,000, 42% $80,000 or more).

The survey asks how well certain certificates or degrees prepare students for well-paying jobs in today’s economy. Large majorities say that a certificate in a professional, technical, or vocational field (81%) or a four-year college degree (83%) prepares a student very well or somewhat well. Fewer (58%) say that a two-year degree from a college or university prepares students very or somewhat well.

Views on Higher Education Seen as Very Important in Governor’s Race

Despite doubts among many residents that college is necessary for an individual’s success, a large majority of Californians (80%) say the state’s higher education system is very important to the future quality of life and economic vitality of the state. Strong majorities across parties concur. And nearly half (48%) say the state will face a shortage of college-educated residents for the jobs likely to be in demand in the future. PPIC research has shown that the state will be short 1.1 million college-educated workers by 2030.

Notably, Californians whose current job requires a college degree are more likely than those whose current job does not require a degree to anticipate a shortage of educated workers (54% to 46%). Most state residents have a great deal of confidence (16%) or some confidence (40%) in the state government’s ability to plan for the future of higher education.

Consistent with views about the significance of the higher education system, most residents (63%) say that in the upcoming governor’s race, views of the candidates on higher education are very important to them (28% somewhat important).

Asked to rate the performance of current state leaders, majorities of Californians (55% adults, 56% likely voters) approve of the job Governor Jerry Brown is doing. Fewer approve of his handling of higher education (45% adults, 39% likely voters). The legislature has an approval rating of 48 percent among adults and 45 percent among likely voters. Ratings for the legislature’s handling of higher education are also lower: 41 percent among adults and 35 percent among likely voters.

Most Haven’t Heard of State’s Master Plan for Higher Education

In 1960, California’s Master Plan for Higher Education laid out the principles that forged the three types of institutions into a system with three different sets of admission standards. Today, just 37 percent of Californians have heard about the Master Plan. But when they are read a brief description, a solid majority (68%) favor the separate roles the plan established for the community colleges, CSU, and UC.

Just as the Master Plan envisioned that every state resident with a high school degree could attend college, the Cal Grant program provides residents attending a qualifying college, university, or technical school—public or private—with student aid if they meet financial and academic requirements. An overwhelming majority of Californians (87%) favor the program.

About the Survey

This PPIC Statewide Survey was conducted with funding from the Arjay and Frances Miller Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and John and Louise Bryson. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 1,703 California adult residents, including 1,107 interviewed on cell phones telephones and 596 interviewed on landline telephones. Interviews took place from October 8–17, 2017. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences.

The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is ±3.3 percent for all adults, ±3.6 percent for the 1,435 registered voters, and ±4.1 percent for the 1,065 likely voters. It is ±6.4 percent for the 433 respondents who attended a California community college, ±8.6 percent for the 294 who attended a California State University campus, and ±10.7 percent for the 184 who attended a University of California campus. For more information on methodology, see page 21.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998.

The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.

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