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Quality trumps affordability at California public universities, poll finds

Wu_Suzanneby Suzanne Wu
Forty-six percent of voters said maintaining the high quality of public education was more important than keeping tuition down.
Forty-six percent of voters said maintaining the high quality of public education was more important than keeping tuition down.

While a majority (56 percent) of California voters said public university tuition is not affordable, voters said maintaining educational quality was a higher priority than keeping tuition costs down. Forty-six percent of voters said maintaining the high quality of public education was more important than keeping tuition down, and 36 percent said the cost of tuition is a higher priority, according to the latest results of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll.

“Even while Californians are concerned about the high cost of higher education, they understand very strongly that the value of that education should not be compromised,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “They’d obviously like to have a high quality college education available at affordable prices, but when forced to choose, they prioritize quality over cost.”

California voters were split about Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed changes to California public universities. Forty-five percent supported a proposal to freeze tuition and fees at public universities for four years and 42 percent opposed, with many voters saying reduced funding could hurt the quality of education and lead to tuition spikes down the road.

Voters were largely against another proposal by Brown to tie some state funding to the percentage of students graduating within four years. Fifty-one percent of voters said the proposal could force universities to inflate grades and lower graduation standards, leading to students who are unqualified or unprepared for the workforce and diminishing the value of a degree from the University of California (UC) or California State University systems. Forty percent supported the proposal, agreeing that it would hold universities accountable for making sure students get the courses they need to graduate more quickly and help make college more affordable.

Voters who were parents and voters who had not gone to college were more concerned about affordability and access to public universities. Voters who were not college educated were closely split (40-39) on whether educational quality or lower tuition, respectively, was more important. In contrast, 51 percent of college-educated voters preferred a focus on maintaining a high quality education to keeping tuition low, and 33 percent prioritized lower costs.

Children also seemed to have a significant effect on how voters viewed the future of public education: Voters with kids prioritized lower tuition over educational quality, 43-to-40. The reverse was true of voters without kids, who said maintaining educational quality was more important than controlling the cost of attending college, 48-to-34.

“The results show how the cost of higher education is squeezing the middle class,” said David Kanevsky, research director of Republican polling firm American Viewpoint, part of the bipartisan team with Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner that conducted the poll. “Across income lines, it is the middle class that is most likely to perceive college as unaffordable. For those without a college degree, going to college is an attainability issue as a much higher percentage of them say California’s public universities are not affordable.”

By race, Latino voters were much more likely than other demographic groups to perceive the state’s public universities as affordable: 47 percent of Latino voters said a public higher education in California was affordable, about even with the 48 percent who said it was too expensive. Conversely, black voters were much more likely to think tuition at public universities was too expensive, with 62 saying it was not affordable and 32 percent who said it was affordable. Among white voters, 58 percent said public universities were too expensive and 35 percent said they were affordable. Among Asian American voters, 54 percent said they were too expensive and 40 percent said they were affordable.

Almost 59 percent of voters supported increasing the availability of online courses that maintain the same high academic standards while providing more flexibility and reducing the costs of a college education. Thirty-four percent opposed the idea of offering more online classes, saying it would limit the educational experience and diminish the value of a college degree.

In addition, voters opposed increasing the proportion of out-of-state students, who typically pay higher tuition, admitted to UC or Cal State universities: 57 percent opposed accepting more out-of-state students and 33 percent supported it, saying the extra tuition could protect California public universities without raising taxes.

Overall, a plurality of voters said California’s public universities — widely considered the best public higher education system in the nation — were getting worse. Thirty-six percent of voters said the state’s public universities were getting worse, 26 percent said they were about the same and 21 percent said they were improving.

State economy is on the rise, voters say

Optimism about the California economy is at its highest level since the beginning of the Great Recession, with nearly half of the voters in the largest statewide poll of registered voters saying the state economy had seen its darkest days and was now starting to improve.

In the latest USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll, 49 percent of California voters said the state economy was on an upward trajectory, the first time in the four years since USC Dornsife and the Times began their polling partnership that hope has outweighed pessimism on the state economy — and a surge of nearly 27 percentage points in optimism over the last two years.

In addition to the nearly half of voters who said the economy had turned around and was improving, another one in five voters (20 percent) said that while things were not yet getting better, the state had already seen the worst. Twenty-six percent said the state economy was still on the decline.

Less than two years ago, in July 2011, just 22 percent of voters were optimistic about the state’s economy, and 73 percent said things were not improving or getting worse.

“California is still lagging behind the national recovery, but state voters are beginning to feel more enthusiastic about their economic futures,” Schnur said. “Californians are not thrilled about their state’s prospects at the moment, but they’re in a much better place than they have been for a long time. They’re not overly optimistic yet, but ambivalence is a step in the right direction.”

The increased optimism about the state’s economy was reflected in approval numbers for Brown. For the first time since he took office in 2011, Brown’s approval numbers have hit the 50 percent mark, though it remains statistically steady from recent USC Dornsife/LA Times polls that showed his approval at 49 percent in both March 2013 and November 2012. In the latest poll, 34 percent of voters disapproved of the job being done by Brown.

“What struck me is the flatness of Brown’s approval rating across demographic groups. There’s no gap on gender, age or income, and white voters actually support him in higher numbers than Latinos,” said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. “That flatness speaks to the broadness of the range of policy prescriptions he has offered so far in office. His approach is not leaving anyone behind.”

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted May 27 to June 2. The full sample of 1,500 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Additional poll results and methodology are available here.

 

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