Survey shows growing support for online education in California


For Steven Ancheta, the time is long past for more arguments about online education’s merits and convenience.

The West Covina resident, who is enrolled in a fully online program for a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University, praised the experience and the chance for working people to take evening or weekend classes.

His positive view about online education was strongly supported in a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. Among the registered voters who participated in the survey, 59% said they agreed with the idea that increasing the number of online classes at California’s public universities will make education more affordable and accessible. However, 34% expressed fears that expanding online classes will reduce access to professors, diminish the value of college degrees and not save money.


For Ancheta, 21, an accounts manager at a telephone company who participated in the poll, the scheduling freedom of online classes “is a very pleasant alternative.” Moreover, he said, “You can pull away the exact same amount of knowledge you can pull away from a traditional classroom.”

The support for online education comes as government and university leaders nationwide are debating whether to expand those computerized classes that usually include videotaped lectures and digital chat rooms.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed giving the University of California and California State University systems each $10 million more next year to add online offerings, despite some faculty skepticism. Several California public universities have joined with such commercial providers as Coursera and Udacity for online courses that enroll thousands of students at a time.

Increasing online courses, as long as those classes are not mandatory, was favored across age ranges in the poll. Countering stereotypes that older people might fear technology, 60% of survey respondents over the age of 50 liked the idea while 58% of those between 18 and 49 said they did.

Such a broad response probably is due to rising familiarity with all sorts of technology, suggested Drew Lieberman, a vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm that conducted the poll with American Viewpoint, a Republican company.

“I think … this is becoming pretty standard operating procedure in both how we live and how education is accessed,” he said. “The online world is less of a threat and becoming more of an accepted resource for all generations.”

However, some poll respondents expressed concern that online classes will be marred by cheating. Opponents, such as Adriana Martinez of Anaheim, also think that online learning is inferior to face-to-face feedback from a professor and classmates.

“It’s the lack of interaction more than anything,” said Martinez, 23, who earned a Cal State Fullerton accounting degree two years ago and recently took online classes for a real estate broker’s license.

The poll found substantial opposition to another possible campus change: increasing the share of students from other states and nations. Even though non-Californians pay much higher tuition, 57% of the poll respondents said that adding out-of-state students will squeeze out Californians and make UC and Cal State less affordable. Just 33% agreed with the position that more non-Californians will help support state universities without raising taxes.

The issue is focused at UC, which aggressively recruits out-of-staters for the additional $23,000 a year they must pay in addition to regular tuition. Those students are expected to make up about 10% of UC undergraduates across the system in 2013-14, but their presence will be much higher at UCLA and UC Berkeley, where non-Californians were 16% and 21% of undergraduates last fall.

Eric Smith, an insurance consultant from Carlsbad, said he worries that state campuses will treat out-of-staters as a “revenue generating machine” and leave less room for state residents such as his own four children, who range in age from 7 to 14. Cal State and UC may abandon their “core purpose to educate the people of California,” said Smith, 40.

The poll found solid opposition to the governor’s plan to withhold some state funding if UC and Cal State don’t increase the percentages of students who earn degrees within four years by 10%. Just over half of respondents said that could lead professors to inflate grades and schools to lower graduation requirements; only 40% favored Brown’s idea.

However, in a closer split, the survey showed 45% in favor and 42% against Brown’s related proposal to freeze tuition for four years and to cut some funds if the campuses raise fees. After hearing arguments for and against the proposal, the bigger share of respondents agreed that it would make college more affordable for the middle class. The others said it would lower quality. (Tuition will not be raised next year above UC’s current annual $12,200 for California undergraduates and Cal State’s $5,500, not including room, board and campus fees. Financial aid is available.)

Overall, the survey showed that perceptions of higher education were not as badly shaken by funding cutbacks during the recent recession as some observers assumed. UC and Cal State were judged to be in “good shape” by 41% in the poll and in “bad shape” by 37%; 47% thought the schools were improving or staying the same, compared with 36% who believed things were worsening.

Costs remain a big concern: Only 38% said it was very or somewhat affordable to attend UC or Cal State, while 56% said it was “not too affordable” or “not at all affordable.”

The poll, which interviewed 1,500 registered California voters by telephone, was conducted May 27 through June 2 for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times. The survey has an overall margin of error of 2.9 percentage points in either direction.