Jason Parkinson, a 29-year-old electrician from Cleveland, doesn't consider it much of a handicap that he never obtained a four-year college degree after high school. "It doesn't do any good anymore," he says. "You get a four-year degree, you work at a fast-food restaurant. You can go to trades and manufacturing…. I'm not big on going to college for a career that might not even be there in 10 years."
Jose Stathas, a 47-year-old assistant to the owner at a pottery company in Buena Park, Calif., didn't finish college either, but he believes he would be better off if he had. "I don't have a four-year degree, and I've learned the hard way that it can affect how much you make," he says. "It gives you opportunities to get jobs in the competitive marketplace we have now."
Those contrasting responses from Parkinson, who is white, and Stathas, who is Hispanic, point to one of the most intriguing findings in a new College Board/National Journal Next America Poll. While minorities worry more than whites about affording the cost of higher education, they are more likely to see a payoff from the investment for themselves and for the country overall.
The survey, which measures assessments of the pathways to opportunity, found broad agreement among whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans that the U.S. still provides young people from any racial background an adequate chance to succeed—and that the primary and secondary schools in their neighborhood are preparing them to do so. But on several fronts, the poll said minorities were considerably more optimistic than whites that more access to education will mean more opportunity, both personally and throughout the economy.
Solid majorities of Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and, to a slightly lesser extent, African-Americans all agreed that "young people today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful." Slightly fewer than half of whites endorsed that sentiment. That was a sharp drop among whites just since fall 2012, when the Next America survey last measured these attitudes. Minorities were also far more likely than whites to say the economy would benefit if the United States meets President Obama's goal of increasing by half the share of Americans with postsecondary degrees through 2020. "The higher the education mark, the more competitive we're going to be in the world economy," Stathas said. "There's a lot of talk of the rise and fall of the U.S. Unless we step it up a notch, there are going to be parts of the world that eat our lunch."
From these contrasting goals flow differing attitudes about the value of channeling more public resources toward education. On several key questions, the poll found a majority supporting public action to improve the availability and affordability of higher education, but a consistent racial divide ran through the data. Minorities were much more likely than whites, for instance, to believe that increasing spending on education would do more than cutting taxes to improve the economy in their community. And both whites and Asians were far more likely than Hispanics and African-Americans to argue that the best way to control mounting student-loan debt is for colleges to hold down costs, rather than for government to provide greater financial assistance. On each of these choices, older whites expressed more skepticism than younger ones about the value of additional public investment in education.
Although workers with a college degree continue to enjoy much higher incomes and lower unemployment rates than those without one, these results find a racial divergence in the interpretation of the sustained economic slowdown since the Great Recession. While most minority families continue to see educational attainment as the key to fulfilling the American Dream that each generation will live better than its predecessor, this survey, like other recent polls, suggests that many whites appear uncertain that any path can still yield that outcome.
The College Board/National Journal Next America Poll examined public attitudes about pathways to opportunity, and the persistence of educational and economic gaps among the races, in an increasingly diversifying America. The poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,272 adults ages 18 and older Oct. 14-24, in English and Spanish, through landlines and cell phones. It includes over-samples of 245 African-Americans, 229 Hispanics, and 107 Asian-Americans; the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points for the overall sample, 5.3 percentage points for whites, 8.8 percentage points for African-Americans and Hispanics, and 14.7 percentage points for Asian-Americans. This survey is one component of National Journal's Next America project, which examines how changing demography is affecting the national agenda.
AREAS OF CONSENSUS
On several fronts, the poll found convergence among all four of the major groups surveyed. On one basic measure, about nine in 10 respondents in each group described themselves as satisfied with their family life. Roughly four in five whites, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics also described themselves as satisfied "with the way things are going in your community today," although only about three in five African-Americans agreed.
The general consensus continued across some fundamental questions about the availability of opportunity. Asked whether "children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have an equal opportunity to succeed," 69 percent of Asian-Americans, 64 percent of whites, and 61 percent of Hispanics said yes; only African-Americans remained more qualified, with 55 percent agreeing. Asked then whether "children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have an adequate opportunity to succeed," about three-fourths of both Asians and Hispanics and almost two-thirds of whites said yes; again, African-Americans demurred slightly more, with 57 percent agreeing.
The lines crossed even more closely in assessments of local schools. Almost exactly three-fifths of all four groups said they believed schools in their neighborhoods are preparing children "to perform college work successfully." The correlation between income and test results and other measures of success, such as college completion, may belie that confidence, but this survey continued a long-standing pattern in polls of Americans emphasizing individuals' capacity and responsibility to overcome their circumstances. Faith in the quality of local schools was virtually identical for whites and nonwhites, including those with and without college degrees, and for families at all points along the income spectrum. In each case, almost exactly three-fifths gave their local schools good grades. Kari Rufus, 37, a white stay-at-home mother in Rochester N.Y., was typical. "It just seems like [today's students] are prepared for college, and when I went to school, they really didn't [prepare us]," she said. "Once you get into high school, you can take college classes that weren't offered to me."
Rufus was actually the exception in her assessment of her personal experience. Asked if their own education had prepared them "to do college work successfully," 77 percent of Asian-Americans, 74 percent of African-Americans, 71 percent of whites, and 66 percent of Hispanics said yes. In all four groups similar percentages (roughly one-third of whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans, and one-fourth of Asian-Americans) said they were the first in their family to attend college. And about four-fifths of both Asian- and African-Americans said their parents had encouraged them to attend college; Hispanics (at 63 percent) and whites (at 62 percent) were somewhat less likely to say so.
Seen through a stronger lens, that final question captured some of the divergence in attitudes about higher education between whites and minorities. Among nonwhites, big majorities of those with college degrees (84 percent) and without them (69 percent) said their parents had encouraged them to pursue higher education. But the result among whites produced a stark educational cleavage: While a resounding 87 percent of those with a degree said their parents had encouraged them to obtain it, only 51 percent of those without degrees said they had received such encouragement. Still, the survey captures an unmistakable generational shift in expectations: More than three-fourths of whites and nonwhites younger than 50 reported that their parents encouraged them to attend college.
That expectation echoes through another question, which asked parents with children under 18 what they expected those children to do when they finish high school. About four-fifths of whites, blacks, and Hispanics said they expected their children to attend either a two-year or a four-year school (64 percent of whites, 75 percent of African-Americans, and 66 percent of Hispanics chose that option). Parents of children older and younger than 12—in other words, those closer to and further from the actual decision—were almost as likely to say their children would attend postsecondary education. (Not enough Asian parents were sampled to provide accurate data on their attitudes.)
Federal figures say these attitudes are slightly optimistic. In 2011, almost exactly two-thirds of white, black, and Hispanic high school graduates proceeded to any form of higher education. And, in fact, respondents with children older than 18 reported that just under half of their kids went directly from high school to postsecondary education, with another third entering the workforce.
Asked what will determine their children's path after high school, few of today's parents cited financial concerns as the determining issue. For each group, the top factor was whether the child wanted to pursue further education, followed by his or her academic performance.
Yet the cost of college is clearly weighing on parents contemplating it, especially African-Americans and Hispanics. Just 20 percent of parents of children under 18 (including 28 percent of whites, 17 percent of blacks, and 11 percent of Hispanics) said they believed their "family can pay the cost of college without borrowing too much money." Forty-seven percent (including 49 percent of whites, 53 percent of African-Americans, and 40 percent of Hispanics) said they could "contribute some of the cost, with loans, grants, and scholarships paying most of the cost." By contrast, 19 percent of whites, but 31 percent of blacks and fully 48 percent of Hispanics, said their family could "contribute little to the cost," with financial aid "paying almost all of [it]." Steve Tarpley, a Hispanic casino employee in Las Vegas, says he doesn't have much left to cover expenses for his son, who will be his third child to attend college. "Maybe I'm hoping to hit the lottery," Tarpley said. "But if he could get an academic scholarship, that would be great."
AREAS OF DISAGREEMENT
While whites and minorities didn't differ much in their expectations about whether their own children would attend school, the poll captured larger differences between the groups on broader questions about the value of higher education and government's role in promoting it.
Overall, the poll concluded, adults divided quite closely over the value of higher education, with 52 percent agreeing that young people "today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful," and 46 percent saying they did not. That's a notable drop from the fall 2012 Next America Poll, when 61 percent said success required a degree and 37 percent said it did not. The falloff was particularly sharp among whites (from 57 percent last fall to 47 percent now) and African-Americans (from 67 percent to 55 percent), although the latter remained more likely to consider a degree indispensable. Opinion among Hispanics didn't change much (73 percent viewed a degree as critical in 2012, and 70 percent did so this year). Three-fifths of Asians, who were not over-sampled in the 2012 poll, viewed a degree as essential in this survey.
Follow-up interviews with poll respondents made clear that disillusionment about the value of college is rooted in the difficulties many young graduates have faced in the job market. Ed Peters is an African-American construction manager in Washington who is frustrated by the difficulties his son has encountered despite having a four-year degree "that took a lot of money to get him through." After college, Peters said, his son worked for the post office but has since been laid off. "Now he's a college-educated kid with no job, and he's having an ugly time trying to get one," Peters sighed. "It seems like such a waste."
Yet the interviews also revealed a sense among many respondents that although a college degree does not guarantee economic security, it's the necessary ante for just competing in the game. "The job market is so awful now, and people don't take you seriously with anything less," said Linda Ahlskog, a part-Hispanic graphic-design student in Natchitoches, La. Jordan Machado, a Hispanic from Cypress, Calif., who runs his own business, said he would "support" his daughter if she decided to join the military or learn a trade, but "especially nowadays … in order to get that middle-class money, you need to have that degree." Even Parkinson, the Ohio electrician, although skeptical of the four-year commitment, is working to complete a two-year degree. "I'm more than halfway there, I might as well get it. It never hurts to get an education or degree, but as far as going to a four-year college and taking on major debt, you might not have a job when you get done. I wouldn't do it."
Responses to this core question produced intriguing cross-cutting patterns. Both white and nonwhite women were measurably more likely than men to view college as essential (that perspective undoubtedly informs the trend in which women now earn most degrees). Minorities with a college degree, perhaps not surprisingly, were more likely (71 percent) than minorities without one (60 percent) to view a college degree as essential. But in a striking measure of disenchantment, the pattern flipped among whites: Those with a college degree (44 percent) were slightly less likely than those without one (49 percent) to view college as crucial. (That difference does fall within the survey's margin of error.) John Lee, a retired white financial consultant in Decatur, Ga., persevered through his postsecondary education long enough to earn an M.B.A, but he admits to ambivalence about its value. "It was certainly a ticket into professional employment, and I'd like to say I used a lot of it, but I'm not really sure that's true," he said. As for today's young people, he says, they would "probably" be better off with a four-year degree, "but it's not absolutely necessary."
Only about two-fifths of self-identified Republicans viewed college as essential to success, compared with about three-fifths of Democrats. Most parents continue to see college as crucial. But in another measure of disenchantment, a slight majority of adults younger than 30 said they did not think success required a degree. Only the elderly tilted toward that skeptical view as well. Adults in their core working years were more likely to view college as necessary for success.
Yet despite these uncertainties, the poll generally found majority support—most heavily among minorities—for public action to ensure greater access to higher education. A 55 percent majority said if the U.S. met Obama's aim of increasing the share of Americans with some postsecondary credential from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020, "the economy would improve because of the increasing number of well-trained workers." Only 35 percent said, "The economy would not improve much, because there will be more workers with advanced degrees than employers need."
Similarly 56 percent said they believed the economy in their community would benefit most from a strategy centered on "spending more money on education" including K-12 schools as well as public colleges and universities; only 40 percent said their area would benefit more from an approach focused on "cutting taxes for individuals and businesses."
An even more lopsided majority expressed unease with the recent trend that has seen states shift more of the cost for public higher education from taxpayers to families, through higher tuition. The survey noted that the cost of attending colleges and universities has roughly doubled over the past two decades, partly because states are providing a smaller share of the cost for public universities. A resounding two-thirds of respondents said these trends were "unfair because all citizens have a stake in ensuring that college remains affordable for all." Just 25 percent said this shift is fair "because parents and students, not taxpayers, should pay the larger share of the cost of college."
Only on a question about mounting student debt did most respondents resist public intervention. Asked to identify the best way to reduce debt levels, a solid 56 percent said, "Colleges and universities should do more to hold down costs, even if that means larger classes, less money for sports, and fewer activities for students." Just 31 percent said, "The government should provide students more financial assistance, even if that means higher federal spending."
Still, the clear majority consensus that emerged on each of these questions masked pointed differences between whites, and sometimes Asian-Americans, on the one hand, and African-Americans and Hispanics on the other.
African-Americans (76 percent), Hispanics (68 percent), and Asian-Americans (63 percent) were all much more likely than whites (48 percent) to believe the economy would benefit from meeting Obama's goal of increasing by half the number of young workers with postsecondary degrees. And although most college-educated whites expected benefits, those without degrees split almost exactly evenly between those who thought such an increase would help or hurt the economy. Whites over 50 were cooler to the idea than younger whites. Likewise, only 44 percent of Republicans, compared with 73 percent of Democrats, thought more college graduates would help the economy.
Similar divides coursed through the question testing tax cuts against education spending. Fully 72 percent of African-Americans, 67 percent of Hispanics, and 57 percent of Asians said more education spending was a better bet for their communities. But whites split closely between education (50 percent) and tax cuts (45 percent). Once again, noncollege and older whites tilted more toward tax cuts than their college-educated and younger counterparts. Three-fourths of Democrats picked education; almost three-fifths of Republicans preferred tax cuts.
Debt separated the groups even more starkly. While 62 percent of whites and 53 percent of Asians said the proper response was for colleges to cut back, even if that reduced services for students, only 42 percent of Hispanics and African-Americans agreed; about half in those two groups said the answer was for government to provide students with more financial assistance.
By contrast, just 16 percent of whites older than 50 and 13 percent of Republicans said more government aid was the answer. As much as any other question in the poll, those answers captured the consistent divide in public opinion between minorities, who see government activism as key to expanding opportunity for themselves and their children, and the skepticism in much of the white community (especially older and blue-collar whites) about the value of those investments.
Only the question of funding public higher education generated a truly broad consensus. Majorities of all four major racial and ethnic groups tested—as well as most older and younger whites, most college and noncollege whites, most parents and nonparents, and most Republicans and Democrats—all rejected the trend of shifting more cost to parents. Beverly Davis, a white student and assistant store manager in Morristown, Tenn., captured the common thread through many of the interviews: "The cost of college is making a lot of people decide they don't want to go … because they don't want to pay for student loans," she said. "It should be way more affordable and give people the opportunity to accomplish their dreams."
The pattern of racial divergence resurfaced when the poll probed opinions about economic and educational gaps between whites, and in some cases Asians, on the one hand, and African-Americans and Hispanics on the other.
Noting that Census Bureau figures show that the average income for Hispanic and African-American families "is substantially less than the average income for white families," the poll asked respondents whether they considered this a problem for the country. Fewer than two-fifths of whites and Asians said they considered that gap a major problem; in each case, roughly another two-fifths said they considered it a minor problem, and the remaining fifth viewed it as not a problem at all. African-Americans expressed the most concern: Three-fifths called the gap a major problem, and one-fourth said it's a minor problem; only one in 10 said it is not a problem at all. Hispanics fell in between, with 45 percent viewing the gap as a major problem, 25 percent a minor one, and 26 percent not a problem at all.
A follow-up question asked respondents which of four options would "do the most to reduce the income gap between white and minority families." Responses on this question highlighted a revealing contrast between African-Americans, who focused on structural factors, and Hispanics, who leaned more toward self-reliance.
Between 25 percent and 30 percent of whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics all picked increasing the number of minority young people who graduate from college. But African-Americans were much more likely than the other two groups to look at systemic civil-rights responses. About two-fifths picked enhanced efforts either to combat racial discrimination (29 percent) or to increase integration of schools and housing (12 percent). By contrast, only about one-fourth of Hispanics picked either answer, with 15 percent arguing that more integration would help most, and 11 percent picking tougher efforts against workplace discrimination. Whites were similarly dubious of those solutions: Only about one-fifth picked either option. Asian-Americans were actually more likely than Hispanics to identify civil-rights solutions, with 24 percent touting integration and another 12 percent more workplace enforcement.
Most tellingly, whites and blacks diverged sharply on the remaining choice offered for closing the gap. Fully 44 percent of whites (and half of whites over 50) said the solution was "more personal responsibility in the minority community." But only 23 percent of African-Americans agreed. Hispanics (38 percent) and Asian-Americans (36 percent) fell closer to whites than to blacks in viewing personal responsibility as central.
The differences were more muted on another set of questions that asked respondents to assess possible reasons why African-American and Hispanic students who start college finish at lower rates than whites and Asian-Americans. African-Americans and Hispanics converged much more closely in their responses on this question, and on some options, whites and Asian-Americans tracked closely with them, too.
All four groups largely agreed that African-American and Hispanic students were hurt by a lack of role models in their communities who have finished college: Between 61 percent and 68 percent of all four groups cited that as a major factor for the disparity. Stathas, for instance, said the lack of role models helped explain why he left college after two years without completing his degree. "This is a major factor," he said. "Role models are critical because they take the time to explain and show why it's important to get that degree and how to do it. I didn't have enough role models, and I didn't have enough people pushing me within my own household and within my own community."
Nearly three-fifths of whites, two-thirds of Asian-Americans, and about three-fourths of Hispanics and African-Americans said a major part of the problem was that students from those groups were more likely to need to work during college; even larger shares of all four groups said a major reason for the gap was that Hispanic and African-American students are more likely to drop out for lack of money.
Much smaller percentages of all four groups said a major explanation for the disparity was that those students "don't study as hard while at college." African-Americans (at 39 percent) and Hispanics (44 percent) were slightly more likely to cite that cause than whites (33 percent) or Asian-Americans (37 percent).
Opinions separated again on two structural factors. About one-third of African-Americans and Hispanics said a major reason for the gap was that students from those groups "face discrimination on campus"; only about half as many whites and Asian-Americans agreed. And while 62 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics believed a key to the disparity is that children from those groups "don't receive as strong an academic preparation for college," fewer than half of both Asian-Americans and whites concurred. "If you're entering at a point where you have to catch up from the start, it's a losing battle," said Grover Fountain, a retired African-American postal worker from Notasulga, Ala.
Still, with the exception of differing views about the persistence of discrimination, respondents agreed more across racial lines about the causes of the college completion gap for African-American and Hispanic students than on most other questions the poll measured. With minority children on track to become a majority of America's under-18 population within this decade—and thus an increasing portion of the future college-admission pool and workforce—the urgent question is whether that largely common diagnosis can encourage consensus across racial and partisan lines on a plan to attack the problem.
Click here to download the topline results from the poll and access in your download folder.
Michael Mellody contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 9, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as How Essential Is a College Education?.