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Press Release · October 31, 2007

California’s Higher Education Angst

Residents See College As Essential But Access Elusive, Costs Rising, And State System Underfunded; Parents Behind In College Savings For Children

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 31, 2007 — Most Californians believe that a college education is necessary for individual success, but they also believe it is out of reach for many—including a large proportion of people who are highly qualified and motivated. And the implications for the state’s future seem clear to them, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Californians say a person must have a college education to succeed in today’s workplace; only about one-third (34%) say there are other ways to succeed. Nationally, the stakes evidently don’t seem as high: Half of U.S. adults (50%) say college is necessary, but half (49%) say there are other paths to success (Public Agenda/National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2007). In Californians’ minds, the state’s economic vitality is also closely tied to higher education, with three-fourths (76%) calling the state’s college system “very important” to California’s future. This reflects the belief of most residents (68%) that the state’s economy will need a higher percentage of college-educated workers in 20 years.

In disconcerting contrast, over half (56%) of Californians think that getting a college education is more difficult than it was 10 years ago. And a strong majority (65%) say that many residents who are qualified don’t have the opportunity to attend college. Pluralities across demographic groups think California will suffer from a shortage of college-educated workers in the future. “This makes for a high-anxiety issue,” says PPIC president and CEO Mark Baldassare. “People are saying that the very thing they need to be successful, that their children need to be successful, and that the state needs to be successful, may not be attainable.”

College Conundrum: Affording Access…

The pessimistic attitudes seem related to questions of accessibility—specifically in terms of cost. An overwhelming share (84%) of residents say that affording college is at least somewhat of a problem for students today, with 53 percent calling it a big problem. In fact, two-thirds of adults think that the cost of college prevents qualified, motivated students from pursuing higher education. Student costs, tuition, and fees are most often cited (35%) as the number one problem facing the state’s public colleges, far outpacing other issues (not enough government funding 14%, immigrants 6%, administrative costs/salaries/waste 5%).

Californians also think the price of college is outpacing other costs: Six in ten (61%) adults – and the same share of parents with children age 18 or under – say college prices are going up faster than prices of other things. This perception is reflected in the clear-cut anxiety among parents with children age 18 or under: Forty-three percent say they are very worried and 32 percent say they are somewhat worried about being able to afford college for their youngest child. Across most of the survey’s affordability questions, parents are more anxious than residents overall. Still, nine in ten California parents hope their child will be a college graduate.

Perceptions on affordability also differ – sometimes sharply – between people of various income levels. For example, when it comes to whether cost prevents qualified students from going to college, those households making under $40,000 a year are far more likely to believe it does than those making $80,000 or more a year (75% and 56%, respectively). Racial and ethnic differences also emerge: Latino parents (53%) are far more likely than white parents (35%) to be very worried about affording a college education for their youngest child.

… And Getting Access

The survey also reveals stark differences across demographic groups in attitudes about the broader opportunity to attend college. Sixty percent of all adults say accessibility to higher education is at least somewhat of a problem, but whites (56%) are much less likely than blacks (67%) to hold this view. When asked if the vast majority of people who are qualified to go to college have the opportunity to do so, 42 percent of Asians and 40 percent of whites say yes, while 82 percent of Latinos and 75 percent of blacks say no.

One of the widest racial and ethnic chasms emerges over whether qualified minority students have more or less opportunity to attend college: Most blacks (62%), Latinos (53%), and Asians (46%) believe they have less opportunity, while only about one-quarter (28%) of whites agree. This question also elicits different responses from different income groups; for example, households making under $40,000 are more likely (45%) than those making over $80,000 (34%) to say minority students have less opportunity.

Generally, Californians are more likely to believe low-income students, regardless of their ethnic background, have less opportunity (58%) than qualified students of a particular ethnic or minority group (39%) to go to college.

Money In The Bank… OR Not?

Adding to angst over the accessibility and affordability of college, seven in ten (71%) do not believe families do a good job of saving for their children’s education today – a view shared by most parents with children age 18 or under (68%). In fact, parents with children age 18 or under are dissatisfied with their progress. Over half (55%) say they are behind where they should be, while only 9 percent say they are ahead, and one-third (33%) say they are at the right point. Lower (67%) and middle-income (64%) parents are much more likely than higher-income (43%) parents to say they are behind in their child’s college savings. Indeed, only one in four parents with incomes under $40,000 (25%) and incomes between $40,000 and $80,000 (28%) say they are about where they should be in their savings. Scant numbers in either bracket say they are ahead.

“There’s a real disconnect here – parents overwhelmingly think college is necessary for success, want their own child to go to college, are clearly worried about being able to afford college, yet don’t – or can’t – save at the rate they think they should,” says Baldassare.

A Matter Of Quality: Higher Education Bests K-12

While many Californians may question the accessibility and affordability of college, they are largely pleased with the job that the state systems of higher education are doing. Two-thirds say that the California Community College system (66%), the California State University system (66%), and the University of California system (67%) are doing good or excellent jobs. Ratings among likely voters and parents are similar or slightly higher.

Residents give much higher quality ratings to higher education than to K-12 education in California. Only 18 percent of adults and 16 percent of parents with children age 18 or under think the quality of education in California’s public colleges is a big problem. When the PPIC Statewide Survey asked this same question about the K-12 system in April 2007, about half (52%) of adults said education quality was a big problem. Looked at another way, substantial shares of adults (43%) say education quality is not much of a problem in colleges, but only 15 percent of adults said the same about the K-12 system.

Higher levels of satisfaction don’t, however, prevent residents from seeing room for improvement. Close to half (45%) say the state’s higher education system needs minor changes, and four in 10 (39%) say it needs major changes. The latter number seems directly linked to affordability: Seventy percent of those who believe major changes are needed also say affordability is a big problem.

Failing Grades For Government, State Leaders; Follow The Funding

Although they believe changes are needed, Californians aren’t putting much stock in the state government’s ability to make those changes. More than eight in ten (85%) adults and nearly nine in ten (88%) likely voters say they have only some, very little, or no confidence in the state government’s ability to plan for the future of higher education. Consistent with that judgment, both Governor Schwarzenegger and the state legislature receive low approval ratings when it comes to their handling of public colleges and universities (all adults 34% and 29%, likely voters 37% and 26%, respectively). For the governor, this is much lower than his overall approval ratings (51% adults, 59% likely voters).

What would improve public opinion about the state’s handling of higher education? More and better managed funding may be one way. Majorities of adults (57%) and likely voters (55%) do not think the current level of funding for higher education is high enough. Almost identical majorities (57% adults, 54% likely voters) would support spending more state money to keep college tuition and fees down, even if it meant less money for other programs. “In past PPIC surveys, higher education has ranked relatively high on the public’s list of funding priorities,” says Baldassare. However, when asked how to improve the system, half of adults (50%) and likely voters (51%) favor a combination of both increased funding and a better use of existing funds—only 9 percent of adults favored increasing state funding alone.

If the issue of increased funding did make it to the state ballot, success would depend on who’s footing the bill. A strong majority (62%) of likely voters say they would support raising the income tax paid by the wealthiest Californians; an even stronger majority (73%) would oppose raising the state sales tax to provide additional funding for higher education. And the ever-popular bond approach? If a bond measure appeared on the 2008 ballot to pay for construction projects in the higher education system, 56 percent of likely voters would support it.

A Little Knowledge…

Are Californians basing their policy and other judgments about the state’s higher education system on accurate information? Partly. Almost six in 10 (57%) residents correctly identified the University of California system as the branch of higher education with the steepest tuition and fees. A significant share (42%) also correctly named the California Community College system as the branch that enrolls the most students. But on one key question – which branch receives the most per student funding from the government – there were far more “don’t knows” (44%) than correct answers of the University of California (22%). Similar numbers of residents erroneously believe that the California State University system (18%) and the California Community College system (16%) receive the most per student funding from the state government.

More Key Findings

  • Latinos’ college focus — Page 14
    Of all racial and ethnic groups, Latinos are the most likely (79%) to say a college education is necessary for success in the workplace. In comparison, only 55 percent of whites say the same.
  • Drowning in debt — Page 18
    Three in four residents (74%) believe students today have to take on too much debt in student loans to pay for their college education.
  • Community colleges crucial… — Page 21
    Huge majorities of Californians say it is very important to them that the state’s community colleges include career technical or vocational education (76%) and prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions (81%).
  • … And doing a good job… — Page 21
    Seven in ten state residents say community colleges are doing a good or excellent job in career technical training (70%), and a good or excellent job in preparing students to transfer to four -year colleges (71%).
  • Worth it and worthy… — Page 35
    A whopping 92 percent of Californians who have attended college think that getting a higher education was money and time well spent. And in a nod to the state’s system, 82 percent would recommend one of the California’s public colleges or universities to a friend or family member.

About the Survey

This edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey is the first to focus on the topic of public higher education. It is supported by funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This survey is intended to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussions about Californians’ attitudes toward a variety of higher education issues. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,503 California adult residents interviewed between October 10 and 23, 2007. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Korean. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on methodology, see page 27.

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 a private, nonprofit organization 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. 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.