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.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the October 13, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.