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Press Release · December 8, 2016

Most See College Affordability as Big Problem

Majorities Favor a Higher Education Construction Bond, Fewer Support Raising Taxes or Student Fees

SAN FRANCISCO, December 8, 2016—Most Californians say the overall affordability of the state’s public colleges and universities is a big problem, while few say the same about the quality of education. These are among the key findings of a survey on the state’s public higher education system released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

As the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) consider raising tuition for the next academic year, 57 percent of residents say affordability is a big problem (28% somewhat of a problem, 13% not much of a problem). At least half of adults across political, income, and age groups see affordability as a big problem. When asked to name the most important issue facing the state’s public colleges and universities, 46 percent of Californians mention affordability, cost, or student tuition and fees. All other issues were mentioned by less than 10 percent of adults.

In contrast, just 15 percent of Californians say the quality of higher education is a big problem. Across political, age, racial/ethnic, and income groups, 25 percent or fewer say quality is a big problem.

While most Californians see cost as an obstacle to getting a college education, there are differences of opinion about the accessibility of loans and financial aid. A strong majority of adults (72%) agree with the statement that the price of a college education keeps students who are qualified and motivated from going to college. This is a view held by solid majorities across parties, regions, and racial/ethnic, age, education, and income groups.

Yet 58 percent agree that almost anyone who needs financial help to go to college can get loans or financial aid (39% disagree). Adults with annual incomes below $40,000 (67%) are much more likely than those with higher incomes (50%) to agree. Californians with less education are more likely than those with more education to say that anyone who needs aid can get it (68% high school or less, 54% some college, 49% college graduates). An overwhelming majority of adults (78%) agree with the statement that students have to borrow too much money to pay for a college education.

How could the government make higher education more affordable? Solid majorities of adults (73%) and likely voters (62%) favor increasing government funding to make community college free. Californians are even more supportive of increasing government funding for scholarships and grants for students attending four-year colleges and universities: 82 percent of adults and 80 percent of likely voters are in favor.

“With many Californians saying that affordability is the most important problem facing public higher education, there is overwhelming support for free community college and for expanding student scholarships,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.

Most Say Higher Education Lacks Adequate State Funding

Most adults (67%) say state funding for California’s colleges and universities is inadequate, while far fewer say there is more than enough (10%) or just enough (19%) funding. Yet only 13 percent say that increased state funding alone will significantly improve the higher education system. Half (49%) say that both increasing state funding and using existing funds more wisely would significantly improve the system, and 36 percent say wiser use of existing funds alone would do so. Notably, 42 percent of those who attended a community college or a CSU school say that existing funds need to be used more wisely, compared to just 22 percent of those who attended UC.

Shortly after California voters approved Proposition 51, a bond measure to pay for construction projects for K–12 and community colleges, the survey asked about the idea of a similar measure to fund higher education construction projects. Solid majorities of adults (65%) and likely voters (60%) say they would vote yes.

Support is much lower for two other ways to raise revenue for higher education. When Californians are asked if they would be willing to pay higher taxes to increase funding for the system, 48 percent of adults and 48 percent of likely voters say yes, while 50 percent in each group say no. Californians are even less likely to support raising student fees: only 23 percent of adults and 21 percent of likely voters are in favor.

“With two in three Californians saying that the public higher education system needs more state funding today, solid majorities support a state bond,” Baldassare said. “Half support a tax hike and one in four favor a student fee increase.”

Another way to raise funding is to increase the number of out-of-state students who pay higher tuition. Adults are divided on this idea (46% yes, 50% no). Support drops significantly if this option would mean that fewer California students are admitted: just 21 percent of adults are in favor.

State Leaders’ Approval Ratings Rise as Budget, Tuition Stabilize

Governor Brown has an overall job approval rating of 57 percent among adults and 59 percent among likely voters. Fewer (45% adults, 41% likely voters) approve of how the governor is handling the state’s public college and university system. However, his rating in this area is much higher than when PPIC last asked about this in 2011 (31% adults, 29% likely voters approved). The legislature has an overall job approval rating today of 49 percent among adults and 45 percent among likely voters. Approval of the legislature’s handling of higher education is also lower (42% adults, 35% likely voters) than its overall rating but higher today than it was in 2011 (21% adults, 14% likely voters).

Baldassare summed up: “Governor Brown and the California Legislature have seen their approval ratings rise as the state’s budget situation and student tuition costs have stabilized in recent years.”

High Marks for Colleges, Universities—but Also Concerns

Most Californians give positive ratings to each branch of the higher education system, the California Community Colleges (15% excellent, 51% good), UC (14% excellent, 51% good), and CSU (10% excellent, 56% good). Notably, the proportion of Californians who give the CSU system a positive rating has increased 10 points since PPIC’s last higher education survey in 2011. UC’s rating increased by a more modest 6 points and the community college rating is about the same. Among Californians who attended a public college or university, strong majorities say the branch of the system they attended is doing a good to excellent job (69% community college, 67% CSU, 71% UC).

While Californians are generally positive about the quality of their colleges and universities, they also have concerns about these institutions.

  • Admission to UC: An overwhelming majority of residents are concerned (38% very concerned, 38% somewhat concerned) about the difficulty state high school students face in gaining admission to one of the UC campuses. More than two-thirds of residents across all regions, parties, and demographic groups say they are concerned, with African Americans far more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to say they are very concerned.
  • CSU’s four-year graduation rate: Most adults are concerned (24% very, 30% somewhat) about the share of students who graduate within four years from CSU.
  • Community college transfers: About half of adults are concerned (21% very, 31% somewhat) about the share of students who successfully transfer from the state’s community colleges to a four-year degree program. Californians value the role of community colleges in preparing students to transfer to four-year colleges and universities: 78 percent say it is very important. At the same time, Californians value another of the community colleges’ key roles: 78 percent say it is very important that the colleges include career technical, or vocational, education.

Diversity Viewed as Very Important

Asked about the value of student diversity, 61 percent of adults say it is very important for public colleges and universities to have a racially diverse student body, while 20 percent say it is not important. Similarly, 61 percent of adults say it is very important for these institutions to have an economically diverse student body (15% not important).

Californians Divided on the Value of a College Education

How important is a college education to success in today’s economy? Opinions are split evenly among Californians, with 49 percent saying it is necessary to succeed and 49 percent saying there are many ways to succeed in today’s work world without a college education. There are notable splits among demographic groups on this question. Solid majorities of adults with no college education (60%) and those with annual incomes below $40,000 (60%) say college is necessary to succeed. Majorities of those with more education and higher incomes say there are many ways to succeed without college (56% of those with at least some college, 57% with incomes of $40,000 or more). Latinos (67%) are much more likely than whites (36%) to say college is necessary. About half of African Americans (52%) and Asian Americans (49%) also express this view.

Asked how prepared students are for college-level work, a strong majority of adults (67%) say that many students require basic skills and remedial education.

Nearly All Say Higher Education System Is Important to State’s Future

At the same time, nearly all Californians say the state’s higher education system is important (77% very, 19% somewhat) to the quality of life and economic vitality of the state over the next 20 years. Yet fewer than half (45%) recognize that the state will face a shortage of the college-educated residents needed for the jobs of the future, as PPIC research has shown. A majority say they have confidence (16% a great deal, 43% some) in the state government to plan for the future of higher education, while 40 percent have little or none.

About the Survey

The PPIC Statewide Survey was conducted with funding from the Arjay and Frances Miller Foundation, the Flora Family Foundation, John and Louise Bryson, Walter Hewlett, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 1,711 California adult residents—851 on landline telephones and 860 on cell phones—from November 13–22, 2016. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences.

The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is ±3.5 percent for all adults, ±3.8 percent for the 1,417 registered voters, and ±4.3 percent for the 1,123 likely voters. For the 400 respondents who attended a California community college it is ±7.3 percent, for the 270 who attended California State University it is ±10.0 percent, and for the 185 who attended the University of California, it is ±11.2 percent. For more information on methodology, see page 23.

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.