California voters strongly support increasing state-funded financial aid for both low-income and middle-income students at public colleges and universities, according to a Berkeley IGS/EdSource poll. However, that support is uneven depending on party affiliation and geographic region.
Analysts said those poll results could influence the ongoing debate in Sacramento about proposals to vastly bolster such aid and those plans’ possible impact on college enrollment and graduation rates. California already provides some of the most generous financial aid in the nation to cover tuition and, as a result, college students graduate with some of the lowest total education loan debt in the nation. Still, the discussion’s focus has widened recently to whether students’ costs for room, board and transportation should be covered fully too and whether community college tuition should be free to all for at least the first year.
The poll, conducted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies on behalf of EdSource, found that 48 percent of respondents said it was “very important” for the state to provide more tuition assistance, loans and financial aid to qualified students from low-income families to attend the state’s public colleges and universities. An additional 31 percent described the goal as “somewhat important,” while only 14 percent said it was not important.
When a question focused on boosting aid for students from middle-income families, the poll also produced positive results: 40 percent responded that it was a very important goal and 41 percent as somewhat important. Just 12 percent ranked it as not important.
California has a program that provides some aid to middle class families with incomes generally between $80,000 and $150,000 annually, but it is limited. The legislature earlier this year successfully resisted Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to abolish the middle-class aid and Brown finally signed a budget that continued it along with the much larger Cal Grant program for low- and moderate-income students.
Differences between voters from the two major political parties was evident in the survey, which included other questions that mainly explored K-12 education issues. On the question of increasing aid to low-income college students, 64 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of Republicans ranked that goal as very important. The gap persisted on whether more middle class grants and loans are very important: 53 percent of Democratic respondents said so versus 23 percent of Republicans.
Interestingly, such political differences narrowed somewhat when the responses for “very important” and “somewhat important” were combined. In that case, more aid for low-income students won support from 92 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans; on the middle-income aid, 91 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans said it was “very” and “somewhat” important.
“Given widespread and bipartisan concerns about college costs, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of Californians want to see the state make more investments in college affordability for low- and middle-income students,” Debbie Cochrane, vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland-based organization that seeks to make college more affordable, said in an email about the poll.
While the Cal Grant program is very large, she noted that many otherwise-eligible students do not receive that aid because of tight funding limits affecting students who do not attend college soon after high school. The survey findings, she said, “underscore the need to deepen investments in Cal Grants, as well as the political support for doing so.”
Andrea Venezia, executive director of Education Insights Center (EdInsights), a policy research center at Sacramento State University, described the poll’s findings about financial aid as a “really exciting sign” for advocacy groups seeking to bolster financial aid. In addition, it shows the depth of “the pain families are feeling” about trying to pay for their children’s college education as well as concerns about how costs cause some students to attend part-time and possibly never finish their degrees, she said.
With such extensive media coverage in recent years, “everyone is more aware of those issues,” Venezia said.
But Venezia, who is also an associate professor of public policy and administration, cautioned that strong support for more college aid could drop if people learn that it would lead to higher taxes or reduce spending on some other areas.
On a geographic basis, support for bolstered financial aid was strongest in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay area and lowest in other parts of northern California. For example, 55 percent of Los Angeles County poll respondents and just 33 percent of northern Californians outside the Bay area said more aid to low-income students was very important. Experts said that may reflect the geographic concentrations of political party registrations as well as higher concerns about the cost of living in the expensive metropolitan regions.
The statewide online survey, which also explored questions involving K-12 education, was administered in English and Spanish to 1,200 registered voters, including an oversampling of parents with school-age children, in late August and early September 2017.
Respondents were drawn from a statewide YouGov Internet panel, with an estimated margin of error of +/-4 percent for the overall sample. The characteristics of those polled approximated the demographic profile of the state’s overall registered voter population.
The full poll results can be found here.