Economists and policymakers regularly tout higher education as one of the best long-term investments to reduce the income gap between white and minority families and to offer young people of all races a chance to succeed. To a large extent, the public agrees. In particular, minorities agree.
The latest Apollo Group/National Journal Next America Poll found that blacks and Hispanics are even more likely than whites to believe that a four-year college degree is essential for success. Minorities are more likely than whites to say that their parents expected and encouraged them to attend college. And African-Americans and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to believe that they would be more prosperous and successful if they had stayed in school longer.
The survey results underscore the strong attraction that higher education continues to have for most Americans—particularly minorities—despite soaring tuition costs and complaints that colleges don’t always adequately prepare students for the rapidly changing workplace.
To be sure, Americans do not see education as a panacea. It doesn’t come out on top when pollsters ask people what would have the biggest impact on speeding up economic growth and job creation. (More respondents chose having American companies invest more in the U.S. and less overseas.) And given four options for reducing the income gap between white and minority families, 40 percent said that “increasing the number of minority young people who graduate from high school and college” would be most effective. But 29 percent selected “more personal responsibility in the minority community.” Less popular were the other two options: “more efforts to combat racial discrimination in the workplace” (13 percent) and “increasing integration of housing and schools” (6 percent). The remainder of respondents said they didn’t know or refused to answer.
“Education is the key, but underlying that is the culture of failure,” said one survey respondent who identified himself only by his first name, Ed, a Hispanic computer technician who lives in Massachusetts. “To prosper from education, you have to believe in it. Some groups don’t believe in it. We are somewhat anti-intellectual as a nation,” he said, adding that “some of the blue-collar folks are embarrassed by a kid who is somehow gifted.”
“How do you make an education valuable to people who have never had one?” Ed wondered. “How do you persuade them that this will work? My kid’s trying to get through college, and it’s hard.”
The NJ poll is the second in a series of surveys capturing the attitudes about the shifting makeup of communities, schools, and workplaces around the country. The first poll, published in the April 21 issue of National Journal, explored the nation’s attitudes about race relations as the minority share of the population has nearly doubled over the last 30 years.
The current poll focuses on education. In the months ahead, the Next America polls will measure the responses of whites and minorities to the other dimensions of the economic, cultural, and political changes unleashed by the rapid demographic changes under way. The surveys are part of the Next America project at National Journal exploring the implications of demographic change. Supplements to NJ magazine and a section of NationalJournal.com are devoted to the project, which is underwritten by the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix.
The Apollo Group/National Journal Next America Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2, interviewed 1,246 adults on landlines and cell phones in both English and Spanish. The survey over-sampled African-American and Hispanic adults to allow for more-detailed explanations of their views. In calculating the overall results, the poll used a weighting procedure to correct for this over-sampling and to ensure that these groups represented their proper proportions of the population. The margin of error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. The sampling error is plus or minus 4.9 points for non-Hispanic whites, 9.0 points for African-Americans, and 8.3 points for Hispanics.
WAYS OUT OF POVERTY
Education is closely tied to traditional notions of the American Dream, in which an older generation sacrifices its own comfort to ensure an education for the next generation. The children, in turn, have more opportunities to advance in the workplace and earn a middle-class living. Indeed, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of respondents said that their parents expected them to go to college when they were growing up, and 61 percent said that young people today need a four-year degree to be successful.
On both questions, the attraction of education to minorities was apparent. Sixty-six percent of whites said their parents expected and encouraged them to go to college, compared with 67 percent of Hispanics and 77 percent of African-Americans. Fifty-seven percent of whites said young people need a four-year college degree to be successful, compared with 67 percent of blacks and 73 percent of Hispanics.
One reason, perhaps, that a college education is seen as so important to minorities is that fewer of them have graduated from college. The poll shows what we already know—that education levels vary greatly by race. More than one-third of the white respondents in NJ’s poll (35 percent) said they held college degrees, compared with 13 percent of Hispanics and 18 percent of African-Americans. Almost two-thirds of Hispanic respondents (64 percent) and half of African-American respondents have a high school degree or less, while about one-third of whites (36 percent) are in that category. Those percentages are comparable to census data, which show 30 percent of whites with at least a college degree in 2010, compared with 20 percent of blacks and 14 percent of Hispanics.
In reality, college is far more attainable as a goal if the adults surrounding a child have been to college. Almost half of college graduates (49 percent) said they have at least one parent with a college degree, and 61 percent of them said that most of their close friends and relatives have four-year degrees.
Minorities who went to college showed evidence of upward mobility between generations. Only about one-fourth of the blacks and Hispanics who attended college or had degrees (24 percent for each group) said they also have a parent with a college degree. Among whites, 40 percent of those with some college or a full degree had at least one parent with a college degree. An additional 25 percent of black respondents with some college said they have at least one parent who attended college but did not earn a degree. Among white and Hispanic college attendees, the proportion with parents who started college and didn’t finish is lower, at 13 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Upward mobility doesn’t mean equality, according to Melvin Wilson, a 26-year-old African-American freelance writer from Youngstown, Ohio. Wilson put himself through college with Pell Grants and loans. He said that his mother, a nurse, “makes pretty good money,” but she is a single mom who lacked the resources to put him through school. “I’m 26 years old and I’m $37,000 in debt. It’s not debt that I enjoyed racking up. That’s not credit cards. That is student loans,” he said.
Yes, Wilson agreed, success is rooted in personal responsibility. But some people have it much easier than others. “When you work hard for what you want and you finally get it, it’s a great feeling of accomplishment. But we do live in a society where if you have connections, you get to go to Harvard.… You don’t have to work to go to Harvard if you’re a Bush or an Obama. This trickle-down crap they talk about is not working. And there’s the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ and the ‘have-nots’—excuse my language—have to bust their ass to get where they want to go.”
Personal responsibility is a tricky topic among minorities. Like Wilson, no one wants to say that someone shouldn’t have to work to get ahead. But minorities are also well attuned to other barriers to success. African-Americans, in particular, may view “personal responsibility” as an excuse to mask more-entrenched societal inequities. Whites are far more inclined than African-Americans to say that personal responsibility is the key to fixing the income gap. One-third of white respondents said that the income gap would shrink with more personal responsibility in the minority community, while only half as many blacks (15 percent) expressed that sentiment. Hispanics (21 percent) were in the middle.
The difference of opinion on personal responsibility is even starker among noncollege graduates, with 37 percent of whites citing it as the key to fixing poverty in minority communities, compared with a scant 11 percent of blacks and 18 percent of Hispanics.
Personal responsibility and education are not mutually exclusive concepts, particularly if people view school as a way to take responsibility for their own fates. African-American families appear particularly wedded to the idea of a college education as the ticket to success. More than three-fourths of black respondents (77 percent) said that their parents encouraged them to go to college, well above the 68 percent overall figure. Even more striking is the number of African-American respondents (72 percent) who did not go to college even though their parents wanted them to. Far fewer noncollege Hispanics (56 percent) or whites (43 percent) reported college-encouraging conversations with their parents.
Hispanics had a more positive view than whites or blacks of the K-12 education system for the next generation. Almost three-fourths of Hispanic respondents (72 percent) said that their neighborhood schools were preparing the community’s kids for college. Fewer whites (60 percent) and African-Americans (65 percent) shared that view. Noncollege-educated Hispanics in particular seemed to covet more education for themselves; 93 percent of them said more of it would benefit them, compared with 61 percent of whites and 69 percent of blacks without college degrees.
About two of five four-year college graduates in the Apollo Group/NJ Poll (38 percent) are the first in their families to receive a degree. On this question there was virtually no difference among whites (38 percent), blacks (41 percent), and Hispanics (39 percent).
MORE DEGREE OPTIONS
The public agrees that people should have more options for postsecondary education beyond the traditional book-learning baccalaureate degree. Three-fourths of the survey’s respondents said that it should be easier for colleges and universities to offer diplomas for programs that last only a few months to a year so that workers can upgrade their skills. A much smaller group (17 percent) said that colleges should resist such programs because they don’t offer much educational value for the cost.
A greater array of degree options is a logical answer to the troubling mismatch between job seekers and employers, which may explain why such a large majority of respondents favored it. Often, it is simply too difficult, too costly, and too time-consuming for minorities and people of lower incomes to earn a four-year degree. Professional certificates and associates degrees are a more accessible goal, but employers and even high school counselors sometimes sniff at those diplomas as lesser accomplishments.
The Obama administration is putting more emphasis on community colleges and professional degrees as a way to help employers who desperately need workers with specific skills. Coordination among employers and community colleges works beautifully in some areas. In central Florida, for example, the area’s defense-contracting and tourism industries are aligned closely with the area’s colleges, so much so that the professional degrees from those schools virtually ensure a smooth transition into a local, good-paying job. In other areas, however, employers complain that college administrators aren’t responsive to their needs. Andy Levin, a former workforce officer for the state of Michigan, said that some employers in his state have had to wait for more than a year for local community colleges to alter their curricula to match their immediate hiring needs.
Meanwhile, the colleges aren’t doing a good job of keeping their students enrolled. Only 56 percent of students who start at four-year colleges finish within six years, according to Education Department data analyzed last year by researchers at Harvard University. The percentage of graduates from community-college enrollees is half that, at 29 percent.
The available data on college graduates suffer from several major flaws, however. The Education Department’s data do not include part-time freshmen and new enrollees who have attended college before. The Chronicle of Higher Education estimates that the fate of 1.2 million students who entered college as freshmen in the fall of 2004 is unknown because they either dropped out or started at one school but graduated from another. Although these “unknowns” could be good targets for community-college and professional degrees, they also are a diverse group, making it difficult to collectively remove their barriers to graduation.
There isn’t one prevailing reason why people don’t complete four-year degrees. About one-fourth (23 percent) of NJ’s poll respondents who don’t have a four-year degree said “life events,” such as marriage and children, got in the way. Almost one-fifth (19 percent) said they are pursuing a degree or plan to pursue one later. Cost doesn’t seem to be a major factor in attending college; only 17 percent said they couldn’t afford it. Almost the same proportion (14 percent) said they preferred a job in the “real world.”
College is definitely on the minds of younger people who don’t have degrees. More than half of the respondents between 18 and 29 (51 percent) said they are pursuing degrees or plan to do so. Only 5 percent of the people in that age group said they preferred real-world jobs.
Most people do not blame the country’s employers for the “skills gap” that leaves thousands of jobs unfilled even during periods of high unemployment, suggesting an overall faith in American-style capitalism. Only 24 percent of poll respondents said that employers aren’t paying enough to attract qualified workers. The others cited a lack of properly trained workers (28 percent), poor coordination between colleges and employers (25 percent), or a lack of college graduates (10 percent) to explain the skills gap.
“DON’T DIG DITCHES”
Respondents were more or less satisfied with the quality of their own education. Well over half (58 percent) said they regularly use what they learned in school in their work, and 74 percent said that their elementary and high school education adequately prepared them to do college-level work. A sizable minority of respondents (36 percent) seemed to think they were overeducated for their jobs, saying that they could have performed them just as well without their degrees.
If people believe that their education gave them more skills than they can use in their work, that viewpoint likely reflects job dissatisfaction rather than displeasure with their schooling. The prevailing view among respondents without college degrees is that they would be better off economically if they had more education—70 percent with a high school education and 64 percent with some college shared this view. A college degree isn’t the be-all and end-all, either; 44 percent of college graduates also said they would be better off if they had more education.
Older Americans are looking to education to help the next generation rather than their own. Richard Yeckley, a white, 70-year-old retired coal miner in Hastings, Pa., is perfectly happy with the GED that he earned after dropping out of high school and joining the military. He built his own three-bedroom house, which is now paid off, and raised five kids. “The guys in the coal mines, they’re making good money, but not the money you earn as a banker. And it’s dirty work but good enough money,” he said.
Yeckley has high hopes for his grandson, who is enrolled in a community college. “He’s getting good grades. He’ll make something of himself,” he said. The kind of training Yeckley’s grandson receives will give him an easier life. “You don’t dig ditches. Machines do that. But the fellow running that machine, he’s earning a good paycheck,” he said.
This story appeared in the print edition of National Journal under the headline "The Ticket."
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the October 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.