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Californians worry about college costs

Many in state want government to do more to help people get a higher education but balk at a tax hike.

November 14, 2008|Gale Holland | Holland is a Times staff writer.

Californians are worried about the cost of attending the state's public colleges and universities, and they're hoping government will do more to help, according to a survey released late Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California.

But most state residents would balk at paying higher taxes to prevent funding cuts for higher education, the survey found.

Californians rate highly all three parts of the state's tiered system of public colleges: California Community Colleges, California State University and University of California. More than 80% fear the state's budget crisis will trigger college funding cuts.

"Given the high value people place on college education, they're concerned something very important is going to be under stress because of the state budget situation," Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute and the survey director, said in a phone interview.

California's public colleges are widely considered a bargain, with tuition and fees below those of many states. The community colleges, where students pay $20 a unit, are often seen as a particularly good deal, and many low-income students are urged to start there to avoid the high cost of four-year colleges.

Baldassare said much of the state's higher education pricing advantage, however, is wiped out by the high cost of living in California.

"Parents who are paying for community college are also paying for housing and living in an expensive state," he said.

The survey uncovered some racial divides over higher education issues as well.

Most Californians value racial and economic diversity among college students, the study showed. But 80% of blacks and Latinos interviewed said they believe qualified ethnic and racial minority students have fewer opportunities to attend college, while only 60% of Asians and whites believe so.

Latinos were far more likely than whites to believe that a college education is necessary to succeed -- 84% as opposed to 57% -- the survey found. Alicia Dowd, an assistant professor of education at USC, said this finding punctured a widely held stereotype that Latinos care less about higher education than other immigrant groups.

"The myth that [Latinos] don't have high aspirations for higher education are not well supported by this and other studies," she said. "The belief in education is high."

The survey also found that more Latinos, 61%, consider themselves ill-informed about financial aid than whites, 38% of whom reported such feelings, the survey found.

"Clearly, the findings point to the fact Latinos have very high expectations for what their children will achieve and very strong concerns that they will be able to afford college and how to learn about financial aid," Baldassare said.

Large majorities of all racial and income groups favor increased government funding for college work-study programs, scholarships and grants, and support an income-based sliding scale for tuition and costs, the study showed. Narrower majorities would approve taking state money from other programs to keep tuition and fees down.

Most Californians said they believe that California's higher education system is vital to the economic strength of the state, and that a higher percentage of college-educated workers will be needed in 20 years. But they are dissatisfied with how Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature are treating higher education.

The survey was based on interviews with 2,503 California residents, including 1,526 likely voters and 1,026 parents of children 18 or younger.

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gale.holland@latimes.com

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