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Blog Post · July 21, 2022

Higher Education: The Economic Engine of California

photo - Smiling College Graduates

Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO, and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, participated in a program titled “Higher Education: The Economic Engine of California” co-organized by CalMatters and the Public Policy Institute of California on July 21, 2022 in Los Angeles. This post is based on PPIC survey findings and excerpted from his prepared remarks.

The theme of today’s program, “Higher Education: The Economic Engine of California,” is a top-of-mind issue for most Californians. When Gavin Newsom was running for governor in 2018, 75% of Californians said that California’s higher education system is “very important” to the quality of life and economic vitality of the state over the next 20 years. Ninety percent said that having a four-year college degree is important for economic and financial success. It is no surprise, then, that 74% ranked the state’s public higher education system as a high priority for the next governor. When asked about the issues facing public higher education, affordability (58%) was more often seen as a “big problem” than enrollment capacity (26%) or education quality (20%). Four years later, PPIC polling indicates that meeting the public’s expectations in this policy arena is very much a work in progress. Many Californians want to see even bigger and bolder investments in California education in this time of plenty for the state’s coffers.

Parents today have high hopes and big concerns about higher education for their children. In the April PPIC education survey, California parents overwhelmingly (73%) say that they want their children to graduate from four-year colleges. But just as many parents (73%) also report that they are worried about being able to afford a college education for their child—and 54% of those with household incomes under $60,000 report being “very worried.” Remarkably, 31% of parents said that they worry every day or almost every day about being able to save enough for their children’s college education in our November survey.

Moreover, preparing students for college is the most important goal of California’s K–12 public school system, according to a plurality of public school parents (42%) in our April survey. However, meeting this goal is seen as a challenging task. Most public school parents rank their local public schools as doing a “good” job (63%) but few say they are doing an “excellent” job (14%) in preparing students for college. Eighty-four percent of public school parents are concerned—and 43% are “very concerned”—that K–12 public school students in lower-income areas are less likely than others to be ready for college when they graduate.

As the state’s public education system moves from pandemic to endemic, many Californians have concerns about the quality of education for K–12 students leading up to the goal of completing college. Forty-two percent say that the quality of education has gotten worse over the past few years in our April survey. Forty-seven percent also say that that catching up academically will be the biggest challenge for public school children in their community as we emerge from the pandemic. Eighty-two percent of Californians are concerned—and 40% are very concerned—that students in lower-income areas have fallen further behind academically than students in wealthier areas during the pandemic.

In this context, most Californians want their government to invest more in education. Sixty-four percent of adults and 57% of likely voters say they would vote yes on a $15 billion state bond measure to pay for the construction and modernization of public preschools, K–12 schools, community colleges, and universities in our April survey. A similar state education bond fell shy of a majority in the March 2020 primary (47%, Proposition 13) and had narrower support in our February survey that year.

In our April survey, solid majorities across the state’s regions, and among age, education and income groups say they would vote yes on a $15 billion state education bond. Majorities of Democrats (78%) and independents (57%) and 37% of Republicans support this. But the June primary ballot did not have a state education bond, and neither will the November ballot. Instead, state officials focused their attention on how to divvy up record-setting revenue and took a pass on asking voters to reconsider their support for an education bond.

Strong and consistent interest in more public investments in college education has emerged over time in our surveys. Sixty-five percent of Californians and 60% of likely voters favor a government policy to make college tuition free at both public two-year and four-year colleges in our November survey. Sixty percent of Californians and 55% of likely voters also favor a government policy to eliminate college debt in that survey. The results for these two questions were similar in our December 2020 survey. Last November, about half or more across the state’s regional, age, education, income, and racial/ethnic groups were in favor—while partisans were divided—on government policies for tuition-free college and eliminating college debt.

In closing, Californians clearly recognize the importance of public higher education for the state. It was named as a high priority for the new governor four years ago, and the 2022 election season is an opportune time to take stock of where we are and where we need to go to reach the public’s goals for higher education. We are honored to have CalMatters as a partner in raising public awareness on this issue. PPIC is committed to providing facts and solutions through the PPIC Higher Education Center, and a voice for the people through the PPIC Statewide Survey in this key policy area as we seek a better future for Californians.


Access Affordability college tuition Completion debt Economic Mobility Economy enrollment Finance Gavin Newsom Higher Education K–12 Education parents Political Landscape public schools Statewide Survey voters