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UC and CSU are unaffordable, and a 4-year degree isn’t the only way to succeed, Californians say in poll

A photo of UCLA's Royce Hall reflected in water.
Royce Hall on the UCLA campus.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Most Californians believe the University of California and California State University are unaffordable, and they highly value community colleges and vocational training as alternative paths to career success, according to a statewide poll released Monday.

More than three-fourths of state residents surveyed still view four-year degrees as valuable. But they are divided over whether a higher education is still as useful today to achieve better economic opportunities as it was in the past, with 53% saying it is and 45% expressing doubt. And 63% of respondents said multiple pathways, including college and apprenticeships, can help achieve a successful and profitable career, compared with 33% who said four-year degrees were needed.

The findings underscore a significant perception gap between the California public and political and educational leaders who tout the state’s generous financial aid programs and the long-term economic benefits of a four-year degree.

The 10-campus UC system, for instance, fully covers tuition for 55% of its California undergraduates using state Cal Grants and its own institutional aid generated from tuition revenue, philanthropy and other sources. Its larger financial aid resources mean UC campuses can be less costly than community colleges when housing, food and other non-tuition costs are considered, according to an analysis by the Institute for College Access & Success.

The state is launching one of its largest ever efforts to make college affordable, pouring $1 billion into expanded Cal Grants, middle-class scholarships and more affordable student housing and textbooks. UC is offering more financial aid packages that cover the full cost of attendance without loans, pledging to offer a debt-free education to all undergraduates by 2030 and half of them by 2025.

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But that information doesn’t appear to be widely known.

Michael Lawson, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, one of three community organizations that commissioned the survey, said awareness about California’s financial aid programs and college affordability push was “close to zero” in much of the Black community. He added that reducing higher education costs may still not make it affordable. Also, he said, some Black adults feel an urgent need to work to help support their families, possibly contributing to lower college attendance rates.

Among Californians surveyed, 60% believe that UC is largely or completely unaffordable — a perception held across all racial groups, political ideologies, age, gender, income levels and geographical regions. Cal State is also regarded as largely or completely unaffordable by 55% of those surveyed. UC’s estimated 2022-23 cost of attendance, including tuition, housing, food and other expenses, is $38,504 for California residents who live on campus; Cal State’s is $30,676.

State residents are divided on how to address rising costs for the UC and Cal State systems, with 18% supporting higher tuition, 24% more taxpayer support, 28% backing a mix of both and 30% unsure or declining to answer.

“Respondents are clearly worried about sticker shock as it relates to the costs of higher education, but data tells us that a credential or degree is still a critical means for economic and social mobility for both students and California more broadly,” said Jake Brymner, the California Student Aid Commission’s deputy director of policy and public affairs.

“Despite California’s generous state financial aid system, its complexity means that students and their families do not get a clear message about how those resources are available to them.”

In a statement, UC said it understood the myriad economic challenges, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, facing California students and their families about college costs and student debt.

“However, it is important to underscore that a UC degree continues to be one of the most valuable investments available to Californians,” the statement said. “Our campuses have graduated more than 40,000 California students a year over the last decade, the majority of which go on to work in California and double their earnings within the first decade of their career.”

Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, called for a statewide public awareness campaign about the availability of financial aid and the “reality that the University of California and Cal State are absolutely the best deals in higher education nationally. But the aid doesn’t exist if you don’t know about it.”

As college costs rise and students wonder whether they can afford their dream schools, California is pushing to help with more loan-free financial aid.

Scott Kerchner, a former Marine Corps colonel who works as an air ambulance helicopter pilot in the San Diego area and was one of the Californians surveyed by the poll, said he questions whether college is worth the price for everyone.

Kerchner said he believes in the value of higher education — he has a bachelor’s degree in political science and two master’s degrees, and both of his sons have college educations. One of them attended San Diego State University, and although most of his costs were covered by a state program for military families, Kerchner said a four-year degree there costs more than $100,000.

“The average person doesn’t have that kind of money lying around,” he said. “Cal State and UC have become so expensive, and unless you’re going to get a degree in the medical field, law or engineering, I’m not so sure you’re going to get the value.”

Kerchner added that schools should restore more vocational education. One of his friends, he said, has no college degree but started a high-end hardware store and earns more than $500,000 annually. A neighbor is a successful electrician and a cousin is a plumber who owns a boat and multiple houses. “There may be more value in community college or the trades,” he said.

Latino respondents were the most likely racial or ethnic group to view UC and Cal State as unaffordable — about two-thirds — even as 73% of them said a four-year college degree was valuable. They were most likely to believe higher education would not bring the same beneficial economic opportunities today as it has in the past. More than half said they faced barriers to entering college, including 62% of women and 44% of men — a larger gender gap than found among white, Black and Asian Pacific American respondents. And 66% of Latinos were dissatisfied with the state’s economy, compared with 61% for other demographic groups.

Helen Torres, chief executive of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, which also co-commissioned the poll, said those findings underscored the economic insecurity many Latinos face, particularly women. California Latinas were hit hard by the pandemic, with 28.9% losing their jobs through May 2020 compared with 9.4% of white women. Latinas earned just 43 cents for every dollar earned by white men in 2015, according to the organization’s 2020 report.

Latinos are “feeling lack of opportunity and accessibility to both economic and educational opportunities,” Torres said. “Bottom line is our state public institutions have an opportunity to better service the largest growing population of the state, whether it be through certification programs or four-year degrees. We need to make college more affordable and more accessible.”

The California Community Poll was commissioned by community groups in consultation with The Times and conducted by Strategies 360, a polling and research firm. More than 1,200 adults drawn from an online survey panel were surveyed in English and Spanish between April 7 and April 18. The poll’s credibility interval, the equivalent of margin of error for panel-based polls, was 2.8 percentage points in either direction.

The poll also found that satisfaction with K-12 schools declined to 48% of those surveyed from 57% in a similar poll taken in February 2020. More than two-thirds think the pandemic had a fairly or very harmful impact on the mental health and well-being of students — but the same proportion believes they will mostly or fully recover.

Black women, however, were far more worried: 40% think their children will be permanently left behind.

The students in this high school are the children of mostly low-wage immigrant workers. But they’re pursuing big college dreams as a new generation that’s reshaping the face of higher education.

Lawson, of the Urban League, said such educational concerns existed well before the pandemic. “It’s an exacerbation of issues that we have had in the past, and that we haven’t been addressing, either through dollars or through programs, anything other than sports,” he said.

Asian Pacific Americans were most likely to believe their children would recover from the pandemic. They also believed most strongly that a four-year degree was necessary for economic opportunity and that UC and Cal State were affordable.

But Nancy Yap, executive director of the Center for Asians United for Self-Empowerment, the poll’s third community partner, said the data don’t reflect the wide economic disparities among the diverse ethnic groups that make up the community. One issue of united concern was race-based violence and hate crimes, cited as a worry by 72% of Asian Pacific Americans — the highest level among all demographic groups.

Overall, the poll found that dissatisfaction about the economy, K-12 education and crime and public safety increased since the last poll in February 2020.

The poll also found glimmers of optimism: Majorities of Latino, Black and Asian Pacific Americans believed that people like them would become more common and accepted in America. White respondents were about evenly divided on that question.

And most Californians across all racial and ethnic groups said college campuses were welcoming to people like them. Political ideology made a bigger difference, with 74% of liberals feeling welcome compared with 64% of moderates and 57% of conservatives.


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