ANXIOUS ABOUT THE FUTURE
The most fundamental question about the next generation evokes the most unease. Asked if today’s children will have more opportunities than older Americans, only 32 percent said yes. In the four times the Heartland Monitor has tested that question since 2009, no more than one-third of Americans have ever said they expect the next generation to enjoy greater opportunities. In the new poll, an equal 32 percent said they believed today’s children will have less opportunity to get ahead, while the remaining 31 percent said their opportunities would be unchanged. As in earlier surveys, whites remain far more pessimistic than minorities: Just 25 percent of whites believe the next generation will have more opportunity than our own, while 38 percent expect their opportunities to diminish. (College-educated whites are as pessimistic as noncollege whites, who have borne larger job and income losses in recent decades.) By contrast, 51 percent of minorities believe today’s children will have more opportunity than they did, while only 20 percent believe they will have less.
Those anxious responses partly reflect an ambivalence, especially among blue-collar whites, about the economic value of a college education. Although studies show that workers with college degrees earn significantly more money over their lifetimes than those without one, just 38 percent of those polled said they viewed a college education as a “ticket to the middle class,” while 54 percent said it was “an economic burden that is often too expensive and requires taking on debt to pay for.” Three-fifths of both whites with college degrees and minorities (with and without degrees) saw such education as a source of advancement, but whites without a college degree split in half on whether the benefits of college justified the cost.
Susan Blackman, a federal worker who hopes to start her own catering business, embodies the enduring faith in education in a uniquely personal way. She has four biological children and three stepchildren, all of whom have either obtained, or are pursuing, college degrees. Blackman, an African-American, says she has strongly encouraged her children to pursue advanced education because she sees it as a shield against the workplace discrimination she has intermittently experienced. “Many times [over 25 years] things came into play that held me back,” she says. “Maybe that’s why I was so adamant for my girls to go to school…. I’m hoping that the educational system will allow them to have much more opportunity in the workplace than I did. And I believe it will.”
Yet even Blackman worries about the mounting debt that college students now take on. That was a common lament in the survey. On a separate question, a resounding 70 percent identified the cost of obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees as a major obstacle to getting ahead. And when asked what sort of experience best equips people to advance, just 41 percent picked a four-year college or university; another 27 percent preferred education and training at a technical or vocational school, while 24 percent said that on-the-job training was most useful. Once again, minorities and college-educated whites were much more likely than blue-collar whites to prioritize a four-year degree.
Josh Coe, a white electrician from Dallas, is one of the college skeptics. “Everyone says … go to college,” he says. “Honestly, it seems like it’s more of a headache because you’ve got bills straight out, and if you can’t find a job in that field, you’ve got to take some other job.” The pervasive suspicion in working-class white America that college doesn’t justify the costs threatens to reinforce the existing divergence in which children whose parents are college graduates are now five times as likely to graduate as children of parents without degrees. That dynamic itself, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, could stunt upward mobility and widen inequality, because studies show that children from parents in the lower-income brackets are far more likely to rise if they receive a degree than if they do not.
As it turns out, Americans are expecting more inequality in the coming years. Nearly half of those polled believe the gap in income between the middle class and the wealthy will widen; another third predict it will remain stable. Only about one in eight expect it to narrow. Those results are remarkably stable across racial and educational lines.
MEASURES OF SUCCESS
Americans also largely agree across those same lines, the survey found, on the markers that signify getting ahead. Some two-thirds of those polled identified as signs of such success owning your own home; having time outside of work to spend with families and friends; obtaining regular pay increases; becoming wealthy enough to retire early; and having a secure job “that you can rely on, even through tough economic times.” (Smaller numbers picked obtaining a college degree, achieving personal fulfillment through new experiences, or owning a business.) Strikingly, though, the most frequently cited indications of getting ahead (at 80 percent of respondents) were both the ability to save for retirement and living free of debt.