Californians say higher education system is heading in the wrong direction

November 16, 2011 9:00pm
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•  But they won’t pay more to help it

•  ‘Most Californians say budget cuts have hurt public colleges and universities a lot’

Most Californians say the state's public higher education system is headed in the wrong direction, according to a statewide survey released Wednesday night by the nonpartisan, nonprofit 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 percent) say there is not enough state funding for higher education, a view held by majorities across parties (82 percent Democrats, 71 percent independents, 58 percent Republicans). A solid majority (65 percent) says that public colleges and universities have been affected a lot by budget cuts.

Californians are much more critical of the way Gov. 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 percent disapprove, 15 percent don't know) — close to its highest point (48 percent July) since he took office.

But just 29 percent of likely voters approve of his handling of public higher education (53 percent disapprove, 18 percent don't know).

The legislature fares poorly in both areas among likely voters, with a 17 percent overall job approval rating (70 percent disapprove, 13 percent don't know) and a 14 percent approval rating on handling higher education (71 percent disapprove, 15 percent 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 percent) or very high (41 percent) priority. The percentage of residents who consider spending in this area a very high priority has increased 15 points since 2008 (26 percent 2008, 41 percent today).

And in the context of the state budget, most Californians (59 percent) favor more state spending on public colleges and universities even if this means less money for other state programs. Most (63 percent) say the quality of education will suffer if the state makes more cuts. Most Democrats (74 percent) and independents (60 percent) have this view, while Republicans are divided (48 percent quality will suffer, 47 percent quality could be maintained).

And then comes the hitch in the git-along:


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 percent yes, 49 percent no). Most Democrats (63 percent) would pay higher taxes, while most independents (55 percent) and Republicans (71 percent) would not.

When it comes to other ideas for raising revenues, adults (69 percent) and likely voters (65 percent) 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 percent) 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 percent yes, 34 percent no; likely voters: 52 percent yes, 41 percent no). Such a measure would require a simple majority vote to pass.


Residents give good or excellent marks to each branch of the state's higher education system: California Community Colleges (62 percent), California State University (56 percent), and the University of California (59 percent).

But ratings have declined since 2007 for both CSU (down 10 percent) 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 percent), CSU (59 percent), and UC (62 percent)

Despite these positive ratings, few Californians (4 percent) see the state system as the best when asked to compare it to that of other states. Less than half of residents (47 percent) consider the California system above average or better (16 percent one of the best, 27 percent above average, 31 percent average, 15 percent below average).

Less than half of parents with children 18 or younger (48 percent) and parents of children now attending a public college or university (48 percent) say the system is above average or better. Half of alumni (50 percent) hold this view. Current students are more favorable: 58 percent say the system is above average or better.


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 percent) are very concerned about colleges and universities offering fewer classes or admitting fewer students (53 percent).

Parents of children in the system are even more concerned about higher tuition and fees (77 percent), as are current students (70 percent).

Reflecting concerns about affordability, a strong majority of Californians (70 percent) says 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 percent) say loans and financial aid are available to those who need it, while 40 percent disagree. Those with incomes under $40,000 (63 percent) and those without any college education (65 percent) are much more likely to say that financial help is available than those at higher income and education levels.

Hispanics (67 percent) and Asians (61 percent) are more likely than blacks (44 percent) and whites (48 percent) 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 percent) says students have to borrow too much money to pay for college. Across parties, regions, and demographic groups, adults concur. Middle-income (81 percent) and upper-income (80 percent) residents are much more likely than those with lower incomes (68 percent) to feel that students must borrow too much.

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


What value do Californians put on a college education? Most (58 percent) 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 percent 2007, 68 percent 2008, 66 percent 2009, 63 percent 2010, 58 percent today).

Hispanics are the ethnic or racial group most likely to say that success depends on a college education (Latinos 73 percent, Asians 63 percent, blacks 53 percent, whites 46 percent).

Nearly all residents (96 percent) 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 percent) 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 percent does not help too much, 2 percent 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 percent) or somewhat confident (39 percent) that they do. But the share of parents who say they are very confident has declined significantly (56 percent April 2005, 32 percent today).

Half of parents (52 percent) are very worried about being able to afford a college education for their youngest child. Concern is far higher among Latino parents (66 percent very worried) than whites (37 percent 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 percent) or somewhat important (23 percent) to the quality of life and economic vitality of the state over the next 20 years.

A plurality (49 percent) recognizes 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 percent only some confidence, 34 percent very little confidence, 16 percent none).


The survey 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 Oct. 25-Nov. 8. 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.

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