Californians rate public colleges highly and back giving them more state dollars, survey shows

Most Californians give high marks to their public universities and colleges but worry they are too expensive, according to a statewide survey released Thursday.

The majority of Californians surveyed by the Public Policy Institute of California support more money for public higher education, but they disagree over how to raise it. Three-fourths reject tuition increases — which are being considered for next year by the University of California and Cal State University — but a majority said they would back a statewide bond for construction projects.

Higher taxes for higher education are supported by 68% of Democrats, 20% of Republicans and 42% of independents, according to the survey. 

Mark Baldassare, president of the San Francisco-based nonpartisan institute, said what most surprised him was that Californians still see college affordability as the top problem facing the state’s higher education system.

Tuition levels more than doubled after the 2008 recession, but the UC and Cal State systems have frozen them for the last six years despite mounting budget pressures. And the cost of California’s public colleges remains lower than comparable institutions across the nation, according to state finance officials.

“How are we going to make sure Californians are going to afford the cost of higher education is first and foremost on people’s minds,” Baldassare said. “There’s a strong belief that the state needs to invest more.”

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed — spanning all political parties, race, ethnicities, incomes and education levels — said they believed that college costs prevent qualified and motivated young people from pursuing higher education and backed making community colleges tuition-free. An even greater share — 82% — supported more scholarships and grants for students.

The Public Policy Institute of California surveyed 1,711 California adults in English and Spanish from Nov. 13 to Nov. 22. The survey’s margin of sampling error was 3.5 percentage points.

Only a small percentage supported state funding increases alone. Nearly half said new dollars should be combined with wiser use of current funding. 

The survey results heartened student leaders fighting proposed tuition increases. Ralph Washington Jr., president of the UC Student Assn., said he hoped UC leaders would pay heed to the public sentiment and find alternative ways to raise the additional money needed for next year. Although UC provides substantial financial aid, he said, it does not cover all costs — forcing many students to work and struggle to afford good housing and food.

“Students believe that the biggest barrier to diversity on campus and success is affordability,” he said. “If the public believes in giving us more money, give us more money and we can prevent tuition increases.”

UC spokesman Ricardo Vazquez said, while the university shared public concerns about costs, “a robust and progressive” financial aid program covers all tuition and fees for nearly 60% of California students, with many also receiving money for expenses such as housing and food. About a third of tuition dollars are funneled directly into financial aid, he said.

Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White said he was encouraged that an independent survey confirmed widespread public support for Cal State’s goals of achieving adequate funding, student diversity and higher graduation rates. He reiterated that he did not want to impose tuition increases — which could amount to $270 annually — and hoped that policymakers would fill the budget gap of about $167.7 million between expected state funding and the needs of the university. 

“I'm very pleased to see that this report emphasizes the role of the state government in doing its fair share to support our ability to teach students and to get them to degree,” White said. “This is about the common good.”

Nearly all respondents to the survey agreed that higher education was important to California’s quality of life and economic vitality over the next two decades — though Democrats, African Americans, Latinos and Asians held those views more strongly than Republicans and whites.  

Two-thirds of Californians said all three systems of public higher education were doing good or excellent jobs. They gave the UC and Cal State systems higher approval ratings than they got in a 2011 survey.

But it is uncertain whether that public support will translate into more state money for the two systems, which have been excluded from funding increases that voters have approved over the years for community colleges and primary and secondary schools.

Competition for state money may also grow more intense under a new president, if Donald Trump makes good on campaign pledges to abolish Obamacare and deport immigrants — including students — who came into the country illegally. State costs for healthcare and services to immigrants could soar. 

“We're in a new era,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who has made higher education a priority in recent years. “A Trump administration … may seek to undermine our progressive gains in California.”

State Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside) vowed to fight for more money for higher education as chairman of the Assembly’s higher education committee.

“A well-educated workforce is critical for the vitality of our state, and I will continue to champion policies improving the accessibility and affordability of higher education,” Medina said in a statement.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state finance department, said it was too soon to say how much Gov. Jerry Brown planned to propose for higher education in his budget blueprint for next year. But he said that Brown has shown a “demonstrated commitment” to higher education by restoring more than $2.1 billion to the Cal State and UC systems since 2013, returning them to pre-recession funding levels.

Such efforts may have been noticed. In the Public Policy Institute of California’s 2011 survey, 31% of  those interviewed approved of how Brown handled higher education, compared with 45% today. Approval of the Legislature’s performance on higher education doubled over the same period.

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