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Press Release · November 16, 2011

Amid Concerns About Budget Cuts, Most Say Higher Education System Heading in Wrong Direction

But Half Balk At Higher Taxes, Most Oppose Higher Student Fees

SAN FRANCISCO, November 16, 2011—Most Californians say the state’s public higher education system is headed in the wrong direction, according to a statewide survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. With the possibility of more cuts to the state’s public colleges and universities looming, most residents say affordability and the state budget situation—rather than educational quality—are big problems.

Just 28 percent of Californians say the public higher education system is headed in the right direction, while 62 percent see it headed in the wrong direction—a view shared across political parties and regions of the state. Only 24 percent say overall educational quality is a big problem, but 61 percent say overall affordability of education for students is a big problem and an even greater 69 percent say the overall state budget situation is a big problem.

Californians (74%) say there is not enough state funding for higher education, a view held by majorities across parties (82% Democrats, 71% independents, 58% Republicans). A solid majority (65%) say that public colleges and universities have been affected a lot by budget cuts.

Californians are much more critical of the way Governor Jerry Brown is handling higher education than they are of his overall performance. His overall job approval rating among likely voters is 47 percent (38% disapprove, 15% don’t know)—close to its highest point (48% July) since he took office. But just 29 percent of likely voters approve of his handling of public higher education (53% disapprove, 18% don’t know). The legislature fares poorly in both areas among likely voters, with a 17 percent overall job approval rating (70% disapprove, 13% don’t know) and a 14 percent approval rating on handling higher education (71% disapprove, 15% don’t know).

“Most Californians say budget cuts have hurt public colleges and universities a lot,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “Their concerns about where the system is headed are reflected in the low grades they give their leaders for handling higher education.”

Californians place an increasingly high priority on state spending for public colleges and universities. Most consider it a high (29%) or very high (41%) priority. The percentage of residents who consider spending in this area a very high priority has increased 15 points since 2008 (26% 2008, 41% today). And in the context of the state budget, most Californians (59%) favor more state spending on public colleges and universities even if this means less money for other state programs. Most (63%) say the quality of education will suffer if the state makes more cuts. Most Democrats (74%) and independents (60%) have this view, while Republicans are divided (48% quality will suffer, 47% quality could be maintained).

Less Than Half Would Pay Higher Taxes To Maintain Funding

Despite Californians’ worries about the fiscal situation in higher education, 52 percent of residents are unwilling to pay higher taxes to maintain current funding, while 45 percent would do so. Likely voters are divided (49% yes, 49% no). Most Democrats (63%) would pay higher taxes, while most independents (55%) and Republicans (71%) would not.

When it comes to other ideas for raising revenues, adults (69%) and likely voters (65%) are opposed to increasing student fees to maintain current funding. Opposition to higher fees has increased since last year, by 7 points among all adults and 5 points among likely voters. About half of Californians (52%) favor admitting more out-of-state students—who pay higher tuition—to maintain current funding. But that support drops to 20 percent if it would mean admitting fewer students from California.

One idea that does garner support: a hypothetical statewide bond measure to pay for construction projects in the state’s higher education system (adults: 58% yes, 34% no; likely voters: 52% yes, 41% no). Such a measure would require a simple majority vote to pass.

Ratings For Three Branches Are Positive—But Lower

Residents give good or excellent marks to each branch of the state’s higher education system: California Community Colleges (62%), California State University (56%), and the University of California (59%). But ratings have declined since 2007 for both CSU (down 10%) and UC (down 8 points), while ratings for community colleges have been similar over time. Majorities of parents whose children attend public colleges and universities give the system excellent or good ratings: community colleges (67%), CSU (59%), and UC (62%).

Despite these positive ratings, few Californians (4%) see the state system as the best when asked to compare it to that of other states. Less than half of residents (47%) consider the California system above average or better (16% one of the best, 27% above average, 31% average, 15% below average). Less than half of parents with children 18 or younger (48%) and parents of children now attending a public college or university (48%) say the system is above average or better. Half of alumni (50%) hold this view. Current students are more favorable: 58 percent say the system is above average or better.

Most Say Aid Is Available—But Students Must Borrow Too Much

When asked about some of the specific ways that the higher education system has dealt with decreased funding, 65 percent of residents are very concerned about increasing tuition and fees. Over half (55%) are very concerned about colleges and universities offering fewer classes or admitting fewer students (53%). Parents of children in the system are even more concerned about higher tuition and fees (77%), as are current students (70%).

Reflecting concerns about affordability, a strong majority of Californians (70%) say the price of college keeps qualified and motivated students from attending. There is widespread agreement on this question among Californians across parties, regions, and demographic groups. Nevertheless, many residents (55%) say loans and financial aid are available to those who need it, while 40 percent disagree. Those with incomes under $40,000 (63%) and those without any college education (65%) are much more likely to say that financial help is available than those at higher income and education levels. Latinos (67%) and Asians (61%) are more likely than blacks (44%) and whites (48%) to say that financial aid is available. Among current students at public colleges and universities, 47 percent agree and 50 percent disagree that there is financial help for those who need it.

A strong majority (75%) say students have to borrow too much money to pay for college. Across parties, regions, and demographic groups, adults concur. Middle-income (81%) and upper-income (80%) residents are much more likely than those with lower incomes (68%) to feel that students must borrow too much.

College graduates (80%) and those with some college education (83%) are much more likely than those with no college experience (65%) to agree.

Less Than Half Say Two-Year Degree Or Technical Training Helps A Lot

What value do Californians put on a college education? Most (58%) say it is necessary for success in today’s work world, while 39 percent believe there are many ways to succeed without it. However, the percentage saying college is necessary has reached a low point since PPIC first began asking the question in 2007 (64% 2007, 68% 2008, 66% 2009, 63% 2010, 58% today). Latinos are the ethnic or racial group most likely to say that success depends on a college education (Latinos 73%, Asians 63%, blacks 53%, whites 46%).

Nearly all residents (96%) say career technical or vocational education in community colleges is at least somewhat important. But Californians do not necessarily see it as the key to success. Less than half (45%) say a two-year community college degree or technical training helps a lot in achieving success in the work world, and 42 percent say it helps some (9% does not help too much, 2% does not help at all).

Parents of children age 18 or younger express high hopes for their children’s educational attainment. When asked the highest grade they hope their youngest child will achieve, 45 percent of these parents say a graduate degree and 38 percent say a degree from a four-year college. Just 10 percent choose a two-year college degree or technical training, and 3 percent say high school or less. When it comes to having the resources and information needed for their child to reach this goal, most are very confident (32%) or somewhat confident (39%) that they do. But the share of parents who say they are very confident has declined significantly (56% April 2005, 32% today). Half of parents (52%) are very worried about being able to afford a college education for their youngest child. Concern is far higher among Latino parents (66% very worried) than whites (37% very worried).

Looking at the value of higher education more broadly, nearly all Californians say the state’s higher education system is very important (73%) or somewhat important (23%) to the quality of life and economic vitality of the state over the next 20 years. A plurality (49%) recognize that California faces a shortage of college-educated residents needed for the jobs of the future. But just 10 percent say they have a great deal of confidence in the state government’s ability to plan for the future of public higher education (37% only some confidence, 34% very little confidence, 16% none).

More Key Findings

  • Plurality say purpose of a college education is to gain specific skills—pages 17, 21-22
    Californians are more likely to say that the purpose of college is gaining skills and knowledge for the workplace (46%) than to say that it is personal and intellectual growth (35%). The purpose of community college? Thirty-five percent say it is preparing students to transfer to four-year colleges, while 29 percent say it is career technical or vocational education.
  • Majority say most students unprepared academically—pages 19, 21
    Just 23 percent say most students are prepared to do college-level work, while 69 percent say most students require remediation. Most (86%) say it is very important for K–12 schools to prepare students for colleges, but only 44 percent say schools are doing a good or excellent job of doing so.
  • Support for racial, economic diversity on campus—page 20
    Three-fourths of residents say a racially diverse student body is very important (53%) or somewhat important (22%). Their views on the importance of an economically diverse student population are similar (54% very important, 27% somewhat important).


This PPIC Statewide Survey, the fifth on higher education, was conducted with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,503 California adults residents interviewed on landlines and cell phones from October 25–November 8, 2011. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Vietnamese, and Korean. The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is ±3.1 percent for all adults, ±3.3 percent for the 1,618 registered voters, ±3.6 percent for the 1,161 likely voters, and ±5 percent for the 1,059 parents of children 18 or younger. For more information on methodology, see page 25.

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.

PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.