Insights & News

Public Higher Education Finance Reform Will Be Challenging But Necessary According to Range of Experts, Voters

Project from David Binder Research Shows Bipartisan Support

California is in the grip of a paradox – a college education has never been more important to have, but has never felt harder to get. With more qualified students than ever seeking a constrained number of seats, many students and their families worry that the opportunity that higher education offers will elude them. For the public university systems in the state – the University of California and the California State University – ensuring that all qualified California students can achieve their educational goals is an enduring challenge.

With an understanding that guaranteeing these systems’ future effectiveness—and student access to those systems—is a complex undertaking, the College Futures Foundation commissioned David Binder Research to reach beyond simple solutions by engaging a wide range of people with a deep stake in the success of California’s higher education system.

We at College Futures funded this qualitative research as part of our commitment to building a shared understanding between public policy makers and higher education leaders of the finance system challenges facing California public universities, as well as practical ways to solve them.

Our examination of higher education finance began in 2016 with a series of discussions with experts with deep experience across public policy in general and higher education finance in particular. We used these conversations to review research, to test ideas and language, and to help formulate a realistic and actionable plan. This qualitative study is an important next step in our work to listen carefully to experts and the public about how to strengthen public higher education in California.

David Binder and his team conducted one-on-one interviews with business leaders, state finance officials, and Sacramento insiders. He also led group conversations with teachers and university employees, and focus groups with voters representing a diversity of political views and with students planning to enter college. His report paints a nuanced picture of California’s higher education system as it reveals a combined commitment from inside and outside the systems to provide California’s students with the education they will need to succeed in the new economy.

Here are some findings from David’s research that we feel are particularly notable:

California’s public higher education system is seen as relatively accessible to all. The most commonly cited positive feature was the ability for a diverse student body to access public higher education. Many also cite the system’s relative affordability, the tiered structure allowing for greater opportunities for all types of students, and the strength of the research conducted throughout the system.

Insiders and outsiders alike agree that the public higher education system needs to become more efficient and less wasteful. However, while people inside the system agree that efficiencies can and should be sought, they feel that the overall system will be unstable without additional reforms and funding.

In addition, interviewees agreed on the need for a few major areas for reform: revenue stability and predictability, more revenues, and improved accountability and transparency. Nevertheless, there was disagreement among the groups about the level of urgency with which these reforms are required. People inside the system believe such reform is essential to prevent a significant decline in California’s higher educational system.

There was broad support for the UC and Cal State systems, but interviewees acknowledged that strengthening these systems would not be easy. Also, we noted that people across the ideological spectrum seemed largely in agreement about the value of the systems and the need to protect them. This seems to provide a real opportunity to do what it takes to ensure their success over the long term.

Finally, we were particularly struck by the interviewees’ realism and pragmatism in addressing the systems’ various challenges. This came through particularly clearly in frequent dismissal of the concept of “free college tuition” as unrealistic. As one interviewee noted in a focus group session, “There’s no such thing as free.”

In all, David Binder’s qualitative analysis is an excellent step in engaging in a deeper and more thoughtful debate about how to best provide California’s students with the chance to achieve their educational goals and have the best chance to benefit from the 21st century economy. Over the coming year, we plan to continue to commission qualitative and quantitative research to gain a fuller understanding of Californians’ perspectives and to help shape recommendations for continued improvement.

Download Perceptions About the Financing of California’s Public University Systems: Opinion Research with Key Stakeholders, Engaged Voters, and Students.