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.