Are College Degrees Inherited?

Parents’ experiences and expectations around higher ed strongly influence what their children do after high school.

National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
April 10, 2014, 5 p.m.

Noth­ing is more Amer­ic­an than the be­lief in second chances. But the latest Col­lege Board/Na­tion­al Journ­alNext Amer­ica Poll sug­gests that the choices young people make as they com­plete high school echo with sur­pris­ing power throughout their lives.

Un­der­scor­ing the stakes of the next step teen­agers take after com­plet­ing high school, the poll found that those who ad­vanced im­me­di­ately to some form of post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion — either to a two- or four-year col­lege or to vo­ca­tion­al train­ing — were more than three times as likely to re­port ever hav­ing ob­tained a de­gree than those who moved from high school straight in­to the work­force. Even count­ing those who are still seek­ing but haven’t yet ob­tained a post­sec­ond­ary cre­den­tial, the ra­tio re­mains 3-to-1.

The sur­vey also found that fears about the eco­nom­ic pro­spects of re­cent col­lege gradu­ates con­tin­ue to erode faith in the gen­er­al value of high­er edu­ca­tion. Just 49 per­cent of those polled said they be­lieved “young people in the United States today need a four-year col­lege de­gree in or­der to be suc­cess­ful,” while 48 per­cent said they did not. “It’s be­come so ex­pens­ive, it’s sort of priced it­self out,” said Tammy Has­son, a re­tired home-health aide from Paso Robles, Cal­if., who re­spon­ded to the poll.

Yet, the sur­vey found that Amer­ic­ans make a very dif­fer­ent judg­ment about the value of ad­vanced edu­ca­tion and train­ing in their own lives. In strik­ing con­trast, 90 per­cent of those who pur­sued high­er edu­ca­tion im­me­di­ately after high school said they would do so again — while a ma­jor­ity of those who moved from high school dir­ectly in­to the work­force said that if they could re­con­sider their choice today, they would in­stead seek more edu­ca­tion. “I’m find­ing it a little harder,” said Stephanie Har­land, from Row­lett, Texas, who is re­turn­ing to com­munity col­lege this sum­mer, two dec­ades after she fin­ished high school and went to work as a med­ic­al aide. Har­land, who is cur­rently a home­maker, said, “I nev­er had a hard time get­ting a job. I was able to get jobs and pro­mo­tions on ex­per­i­ence. Now they want you to have a de­gree.” The sur­vey also power­fully doc­u­ments how much the de­cisions young people make im­me­di­ately after high school are shaped by the at­ti­tudes and ex­per­i­ences of their par­ents. Those raised by par­ents with col­lege de­grees were vastly more likely than those raised by par­ents without de­grees to say that their fam­ily en­cour­aged them to at­tend col­lege. Those from fam­il­ies with col­lege ex­per­i­ence were also much more likely to re­port that they them­selves star­ted col­lege dir­ectly after fin­ish­ing high school, and that they ul­ti­mately ob­tained a post­sec­ond­ary de­gree. Graph­ic: Back to School?

Each of those find­ings, echoed by oth­er aca­dem­ic stud­ies, shows how a high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem tra­di­tion­ally seen as equal­iz­ing op­por­tun­ity now of­ten has the ef­fect of strat­i­fy­ing it. Con­found­ing Amer­ica’s self-im­age as a land of unique mo­bil­ity, stud­ies have found that young people in the United States are less likely than young people in any oth­er ad­vanced na­tion to ob­tain more edu­ca­tion than their par­ents. “You’ve got a sys­tem that is pro­mot­ing the in­tergen­er­a­tion­al trans­mis­sion of class,” says An­thony Carne­vale, dir­ect­or of the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force.

THE WORK­ING LIFE

The latest Col­lege Board/Na­tion­al Journ­al Next Amer­ica Poll, con­duc­ted by Prin­ceton Sur­vey Re­search As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al, sur­veyed 1,271 adults on land­lines and cell phones, in Eng­lish and Span­ish, from March 18-26. The sur­vey in­cluded over­samples of 255 Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, 273 His­pan­ics, and 107 Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans that al­low for more de­tailed ana­lys­is of those groups. It 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; 7.2 per­cent­age points for His­pan­ics; and 13.3 per­cent­age points for Asi­ans. The sur­vey is one com­pon­ent of Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Next Amer­ica pro­ject, which ex­plores how grow­ing di­versity is chan­ging the na­tion­al agenda.

The new sur­vey ex­plores the edu­ca­tion­al and ca­reer choices Amer­ic­ans have made, the factors that in­flu­enced their de­cisions, and the obstacles they have faced.

With­in each of the four ra­cial groups, about two-thirds of adults said they be­lieved their high school edu­ca­tion pre­pared them “to do col­lege work suc­cess­fully.” But, ex­cept for Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans, much smal­ler per­cent­ages in each group said they ac­tu­ally moved im­me­di­ately in­to high­er edu­ca­tion when they com­pleted high school.

Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans (at 16 per­cent), whites (13 per­cent), and His­pan­ics (13 per­cent) pro­ceeded from high school to com­munity col­lege in sim­il­ar pro­por­tions. But whites (29 per­cent) and blacks (25 per­cent) were much more likely than His­pan­ics (just 17 per­cent) to trans­ition dir­ectly to a four-year col­lege. And the per­cent­age of Asi­ans who went straight to col­lege dwarfed the shares of all oth­er groups: Fully 60 per­cent of them said they ad­vanced dir­ectly from high school to a four-year col­lege (with an ad­di­tion­al 4 per­cent pick­ing a com­munity col­lege).

A thin­ner, single-di­git slice of each group said they pur­sued vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion. Com­bined with col­lege at­tend­ance, that meant al­most ex­actly half of whites and blacks, about two-fifths of His­pan­ics, and two-thirds of Asi­ans sought fur­ther train­ing after high school. Age also shaped the re­sponses: About three-fifths of adults young­er than 30 said they pur­sued some ad­di­tion­al train­ing after high school. Only about half as many seni­ors said the same.

In each group, the re­mainder moved dir­ectly from high school in­to the work­force or the mil­it­ary. Just un­der two-fifths of whites, blacks, and His­pan­ics, and slightly few­er than three in 10 Asi­ans, said they star­ted work­ing dir­ectly after high school; His­pan­ics (at 13 per­cent) were much more likely than any oth­er group to say they entered the mil­it­ary. (Whites were next, at 6 per­cent.)

Fin­an­cial con­sid­er­a­tions dom­in­ated the de­cisions for those who transitioned from high school in­to the work­force or the mil­it­ary, the sur­vey found. Asked why they made that choice, 59 per­cent said it was be­cause they could “not af­ford to pay for edu­ca­tion bey­ond high school.” That reas­on was chosen more of­ten any of nine oth­er op­tions offered. The next-most-com­mon reas­ons cited for skip­ping high­er edu­ca­tion were eager­ness to be­gin a ca­reer (53 per­cent) and the need “to help sup­port your fam­ily” (46 per­cent). Smal­ler per­cent­ages cited a de­sire not to take out stu­dent loans (35 per­cent); not re­ceiv­ing much in­form­a­tion about col­lege from par­ents or coun­selors (34 per­cent); not be­liev­ing col­lege was worth the cost (31 per­cent); and not lik­ing school (30 per­cent).

With only a few ex­cep­tions, these an­swers var­ied strik­ingly little from one group to an­oth­er. (Not enough Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans moved dir­ectly in­to the work­force to provide a stat­ist­ic­ally val­id sample on this ques­tion.) Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans were al­most twice as likely as whites to say they didn’t feel aca­dem­ic­ally pre­pared for high­er edu­ca­tion. And both Afric­an-Afric­ans (54 per­cent) and His­pan­ics (a strik­ing 66 per­cent) who moved dir­ectly in­to the work­force were far more likely than whites (just 39 per­cent) to say they did so be­cause they needed to help sup­port their fam­ily.

Those who moved dir­ectly from school to work re­por­ted a gen­er­ally smooth trans­ition. Roughly three-fourths of those who chose that route de­scribed their trans­ition in­to the work­force as either very (49 per­cent) or some­what (28 per­cent) easy.

On a more de­tailed ques­tion about ini­tial ex­per­i­ences, 90 per­cent of these work­ers said they felt con­fid­ent in their abil­ity to do the job well, and a sol­id three-fifths agreed they “were able to get a good start on liv­ing the life [they] wanted to lead.” Only about one in five said they “were not dis­cip­lined enough in [their] work per­form­ance.” But about two-fifths said they had trouble pay­ing their bills when they set out. And, in the clearest meas­ure of un­ease with the de­cision, al­most ex­actly half of them agreed that “the well-pay­ing jobs you wanted re­quired skills and train­ing you did not have.”

A sep­ar­ate ques­tion, worded slightly dif­fer­ently, pro­duced a more pos­it­ive re­sponse about those op­por­tun­it­ies: Al­most four-fifths of those who joined the work­force or mil­it­ary said they were able to de­vel­op enough skills to move in­to bet­ter-pay­ing jobs. But ex­actly one-third of people who ini­tially skipped high­er edu­ca­tion said they re­con­sidered and later sought a de­gree (with 22 per­cent pur­su­ing a two-year cre­den­tial and 11 per­cent a four-year de­gree). Of those who went back to school, though, only about three-fifths said they have com­pleted a de­gree.

Taken to­geth­er, that means only about one-fifth of those who joined the work­force or mil­it­ary im­me­di­ately after high school re­port that they later ob­tained either a two- or four-year de­gree. A mod­est ad­di­tion­al 6 per­cent say they are still seek­ing a de­gree.

While many of those who skipped col­lege found suc­cess­ful ca­reers, these res­ults un­der­score the con­sequences of the ini­tial choices young people make as they com­plete high school. So does the re­sponse to a sum­mary ques­tion ask­ing people who dir­ectly entered the work­force or the mil­it­ary after high school wheth­er they would make the same choice again. In this group, 26 per­cent said they would still get a job, and 18 per­cent said they would still choose the mil­it­ary. But a 54 per­cent ma­jor­ity said they would seek more edu­ca­tion: a four-year de­gree (26 per­cent), a two-year de­gree (18 per­cent), or vo­ca­tion­al train­ing (10 per­cent).

In­ter­views with re­spond­ents who moved dir­ectly from high school in­to the work­force il­lu­min­ated those sen­ti­ments. Bry­an Hende­r­son, a 24-year-old ship-re­pair em­ploy­ee in Vir­gin­ia Beach, Va., feels that his lack of a de­gree is some­what lim­it­ing his abil­ity to ad­vance. But, mostly, he doesn’t second-guess his de­cision. When he looks at some friends with four-year de­grees, he says, “Now they are work­ing fast-food.” Tammy Has­son, like­wise, said she en­joyed her earli­er ca­reer as a home-health aide and felt no need for a de­gree. Her hus­band, she ad­ded, “loves” his job as a handy­man on a farm and “makes de­cent money.”

By con­trast, Sally Rivera,60, a re­tired of­fice ad­min­is­trat­or, says that while she doesn’t be­lieve a four-year de­gree “is go­ing to get you any­thing today,” she still wishes she had ob­tained one years ago. “Had I gone to col­lege, I would have loved to be a lib­rar­i­an,” she said. And Har­land, the sub­urb­an Dal­las home­maker, feels her de­cision to start work­ing after high school has ex­posed her to a slow-mo­tion eco­nom­ic squeeze: From one side she faces rising costs for col­lege, from the oth­er di­min­ish­ing op­por­tun­it­ies for those without a de­gree. “You can’t make money without a de­gree,” the 38-year-old said. “The jobs you get are very, very low.”

Whites di­vided al­most evenly on wheth­er, if giv­en an­oth­er chance, they would enter the work­force im­me­di­ately or seek more edu­ca­tion. But two-thirds of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, and nearly three-fourth of His­pan­ics who chose work over fur­ther edu­ca­tion said that if they had to do it again, they would seek more edu­ca­tion or train­ing. Those num­bers high­light the chal­lenge in help­ing young people from those groups to ac­cur­ately meas­ure the costs and be­ne­fits of their choices — par­tic­u­larly in com­munit­ies with few­er role mod­els who em­body the be­ne­fits ad­vanced edu­ca­tion can provide.

THE COL­LEGE TRACK

The sur­vey spot­lights the re­in­for­cing con­flu­ence of con­sid­er­a­tions that drive the young people who seek more train­ing after high school. Just un­der half of the adults sur­veyed moved from high school in­to a four-year or two-year col­lege or vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion, and when they were asked why they did so, three factors dom­in­ated. The biggest was eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity: 87 per­cent of them said they “con­sidered more edu­ca­tion ne­ces­sary to ob­tain a well-pay­ing job.” Run­ning step-for-step was per­son­al ful­fill­ment: 85 per­cent said they “wanted to learn new things.” Close be­hind were fam­ily ex­pect­a­tions: 68 per­cent said their fam­ily “al­ways ex­pec­ted you to go.” Few­er said they “wanted more time to con­sider what ca­reer to pur­sue” (54 per­cent); they “wer­en’t ready to enter the work­force full time” (39 per­cent); or the eco­nomy “was too weak “¦ to find a job” (17 per­cent). Though these ques­tions oc­ca­sion­ally re­flec­ted dif­fer­ences among the groups, the big­ger trend was con­ver­gence: For in­stance, at least 83 per­cent of each of the four groups said they con­sidered edu­ca­tion key to bet­ter-pay­ing jobs, and at least 84 per­cent said they wanted to learn new things.

Fur­ther prob­ing found telling dif­fer­ences in the mo­tiv­a­tions of those who chose the dif­fer­ent forms of post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion. Those who en­rolled in four-year col­leges after high school said they did so be­cause they thought it would provide them “more op­por­tun­it­ies, in­clud­ing the op­tion to at­tend gradu­ate school” (80 per­cent); they thought it “would lead to a bet­ter-pay­ing job” (78 per­cent); they con­sidered it more pres­ti­gi­ous (74 per­cent); or their “par­ents or high school coun­selors ad­vised [them] to do it” (69 per­cent).

For those who chose two-year schools, the big reas­ons were that “it cost less” (a re­sound­ing 75 per­cent) or that they con­sidered it “easi­er to bal­ance oth­er ob­lig­a­tions like fam­ily or work” (63 per­cent). For those who entered vo­ca­tion­al train­ing, cost (75 per­cent) and bal­an­cing oth­er ob­lig­a­tions (53 per­cent) were also big reas­ons — but so were the be­lief that it offered more job-rel­ev­ant train­ing (67 per­cent) and doubt that they could aca­dem­ic­ally handle a two- or four-year school (47 per­cent).

Com­pared with those who dir­ectly entered the work­force or the mil­it­ary after high school, those who sought more edu­ca­tion or train­ing ac­tu­ally re­por­ted a slightly rock­i­er trans­ition. Just 37 per­cent of those who pur­sued ad­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion said their trans­ition was very easy (com­pared with 49 per­cent of those who did not). But on the more de­tailed ques­tion, those mov­ing from high school in­to a two- or four-year col­lege re­por­ted re­l­at­ively few obstacles. Few­er than one in four said they found them­selves aca­dem­ic­ally un­pre­pared for col­lege work. Only about one in eight said fam­ily ob­lig­a­tions in­terfered or that they spent too much time in re­medi­al courses. About one-third in each case said they didn’t “re­ceive enough guid­ance or dir­ec­tion from the col­lege,” didn’t find course top­ics “in­ter­est­ing or rel­ev­ant,” or found it dif­fi­cult to be on their own for the first time.

Ra­cial dif­fer­ences emerged on some of these fronts. His­pan­ics (35 per­cent) were more likely than whites or blacks (around one-fourth in each case) to de­scribe them­selves as aca­dem­ic­ally un­pre­pared. Blacks, His­pan­ics, and Asi­ans were all at least twice as likely as whites to say they spent too much time in re­medi­al courses — or that they faced com­plic­at­ing fam­ily ob­lig­a­tions.

But the biggest over­all prob­lems cited by those who moved dir­ectly in­to col­lege were dif­fi­culty in man­aging their time (47 per­cent over­all) and fin­an­cial pres­sures (43 per­cent over­all). At least two-fifths of all four groups re­por­ted fin­an­cial pres­sure while at school; roughly half of those in each group re­por­ted dif­fi­culty man­aging their time, ex­cept for His­pan­ics, who ex­pressed less con­cern.

These res­ults cap­ture the in­tensi­fy­ing eco­nom­ic pres­sure on col­lege stu­dents as costs and debts rise. Just 28 per­cent of those re­spond­ents 50 and older who at­ten­ded col­lege dir­ectly after high school re­por­ted that they faced fin­an­cial wor­ries. Among those young­er than 30 who made that same choice, al­most ex­actly twice as many re­por­ted such strains.

Of those who pur­sued a two- or four-year de­gree or vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion im­me­di­ately after high school, 63 per­cent re­por­ted com­plet­ing their de­gree, while 37 per­cent said they did not. Of those who didn’t fin­ish their de­gree, 40 per­cent said they are still try­ing.

Taken to­geth­er, these res­ults in­dic­ate that nearly four in five of those who sought more train­ing im­me­di­ately after high school either ob­tained a post­sec­ond­ary de­gree or are still seek­ing it. The com­par­able num­ber for those who entered the work­force or mil­it­ary im­me­di­ately after high school is only about one in four.

Wheth­er they fin­ished or not, those who sought fur­ther edu­ca­tion and train­ing after high school ex­pressed much more sat­is­fac­tion with their de­cision than those who moved dir­ectly in­to the work­force or mil­it­ary. Nine in 10 of those who pur­sued more edu­ca­tion said they would make the choice again, with 63 per­cent say­ing they would seek a four-year de­gree, 21 per­cent say­ing they would pur­sue a two-year de­gree, and 6 per­cent say­ing they would opt for vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion. Just 3 per­cent said that if they could do it again, they would start work­ing im­me­di­ately after high school, and only 5 per­cent said they would in­stead enter the mil­it­ary. Even 87 per­cent of those who pur­sued but did not ob­tain a de­gree after high school said they would start the climb again.

An­drew Cheek, an en­gin­eer who re­cently gradu­ated from the Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina (Char­lotte), is among those com­fort­able with his choice to at­tend col­lege. While he sees some friends without de­grees who are get­ting ahead and views col­lege as “so ex­pens­ive,” he also con­siders it in­dis­pens­able. “My com­pany wouldn’t have even con­tac­ted me for an in­ter­view un­less I had a four-year de­gree,” he said. “Where I am now is bet­ter than where I would be if I didn’t go to col­lege.”

These per­son­al as­sess­ments provide a bookend and per­spect­ive for the con­tin­ued de­cline in the per­cent­age of adults who say they be­lieve that young people need a col­lege de­gree to suc­ceed. Al­though col­lege gradu­ates en­joy much lower un­em­ploy­ment rates and much high­er life­time earn­ings than those without de­grees, the dif­fi­culty many young gradu­ates have been ex­per­i­en­cing is clearly tak­ing a toll on high­er edu­ca­tion’s brand im­age. The 49 per­cent in the sur­vey who said young people need a four-year de­gree to suc­ceed con­tin­ues a steady de­cline from the 61 per­cent who said so in the fall 2012 Next Amer­ica Poll and the 52 per­cent who con­curred last Oc­to­ber.

In the latest poll, while nearly three-fifths of both Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans, and ex­actly two-thirds of His­pan­ics, still said suc­cess de­mands a de­gree, only 45 per­cent of whites agreed. Not only a ma­jor­ity of non­col­lege-edu­cated whites, but also most of those with de­grees, re­jec­ted the idea that suc­cess re­quires a de­gree.

But whatever adults say about the value of high­er edu­ca­tion in gen­er­al, those who have ob­tained it over­whelm­ingly see it as a pos­it­ive factor in their own lives — enough so, at least, to re­peat the choice if giv­en a clean slate. These per­son­al judg­ments also re­veal something else that re­ver­ber­ates as a cent­ral chord throughout the poll: the sweep­ing power of par­ent­al edu­ca­tion in shap­ing the ex­pect­a­tions and ex­per­i­ences of young people as they make their own choices.

WELL-WORN PATHS

One of the most power­ful — and dis­turb­ing — trends in Amer­ic­an high­er edu­ca­tion is the tend­ency of edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment to re­pro­duce it­self, with the chil­dren of those who gradu­ated from col­lege much more likely to gradu­ate them­selves than those whose par­ents did not.

The Col­lege Board/Na­tion­al Journ­alPoll vividly cap­tures the dense web of at­ti­tudes, ex­pect­a­tions, and ex­per­i­ences that con­trib­ute to those trends. It asked re­spond­ents to in­dic­ate the highest level of edu­ca­tion ob­tained by their par­ents, which al­lowed Na­tion­al Journ­al to com­pare re­sponses based on wheth­er both, one, or neither of a per­son’s par­ents had ob­tained at least a four-year col­lege de­gree. In the poll, 11 per­cent of re­spond­ents said both of their par­ents held col­lege de­grees. An­oth­er 14 per­cent said one par­ent had a de­gree, and 55 per­cent said neither par­ent had one. Whites and es­pe­cially Asi­ans were more likely than blacks or His­pan­ics to re­port that at least one par­ent had a de­gree — and adults un­der 30 were sig­ni­fic­antly more likely to do so than those over 50.

A for­mid­able gulf fre­quently sep­ar­ated people raised in fam­il­ies with and without de­grees. The con­trast star­ted with as­sess­ments of the value of col­lege in gen­er­al. While 62 per­cent of those with two col­lege gradu­ates as par­ents say that young people today need a four-year de­gree to suc­ceed, only about 46 per­cent of those from no-de­gree fam­il­ies agree. Graph­ic: Par­ent­al In­flu­ence

The gap widened with the ad­vice that people re­ceived when they fin­ished high school. Fully 80 per­cent of those raised by two gradu­ates said their par­ents en­cour­aged them to at­tend a four-year school; just 29 per­cent of those raised in no-de­gree fam­il­ies said they were urged to pur­sue a four-year de­gree. (Al­most three-fifths of chil­dren from one-de­gree fam­il­ies re­ceived such en­cour­age­ment.)

Cheek was among the chil­dren of two-de­gree par­ents who felt that steady push. “From an early age, it was im­port­ant to my par­ents that I go to col­lege,” he said. Like Cheek, Nick Ber­tram, a sopho­more at St. Leo Uni­versity in Flor­ida who re­spon­ded to the poll, grew up in an at­mo­sphere in which col­lege was es­sen­tially as­sumed. Ber­tram said that his moth­er, a nurse with a col­lege de­gree, “drilled it in­to my brain cells since I was born” that he should at­tend col­lege, too.

Speak­ing from a par­ent’s per­spect­ive, Bob­bie North, a moth­er of three in Lan­caster, Pa., who earned her own B.A., is sens­it­ive to the rising cost of col­lege (“it can be rather in­tim­id­at­ing”) but still says she is “strongly en­cour­aging” her chil­dren to seek de­grees. “Someone who is a car­penter and has learned a trade can have a very happy, suc­cess­ful life, com­pared to someone who has gone through col­lege and is un­happy,” she says. Non­ethe­less, she adds, “Just hav­ing a dip­loma is go­ing to give you more op­tions.”

In con­trast, more than one-third of those raised in fam­il­ies without a de­gree said they were en­cour­aged to take a job (30 per­cent) or enter the mil­it­ary (6 per­cent); few­er than one in 12 of those reared in two-de­gree fam­il­ies re­ceived that ad­vice.

Many par­ents without de­grees are equally de­term­ined to dir­ect their chil­dren to­ward col­lege. But in in­ter­views, sev­er­al of those from fam­il­ies without de­grees who chose work over col­lege after high school said they did not feel strong par­ent­al pres­sure to re­con­sider. “They would have liked for me to go to school, but if I could sup­port my­self, they were all good with it,” said Hende­r­son. Justin Hem­minger, who dropped out of col­lege after ini­tially try­ing to com­bine study­ing with work, is now work­ing in con­struc­tion in Bakersfield, Cal­if. He says his par­ents “had suc­cess­ful ca­reers without go­ing to col­lege” and told him “just make up your own mind. Whatever you choose, we’ll sup­port.”

That gap per­sisted in the ac­tu­al choices people re­por­ted. Fully 76 per­cent of those who had two par­ents with de­grees said they entered a two- or four-year col­lege im­me­di­ately after high school; that was al­most double the 37 per­cent of those from no-de­gree fam­il­ies who did so. Ex­actly half of those from no-de­gree fam­il­ies went from high school in­to the work­force or mil­it­ary; just few­er than one in five of those from two-de­gree fam­il­ies did the same. (Among those from one-de­gree fam­il­ies, roughly two-thirds sought more edu­ca­tion and one-third entered the work­force.) Even among those who ini­tially entered the work­force after high school, those from fam­il­ies with col­lege de­grees were more likely than those from fam­il­ies without them to try to ob­tain a dip­loma later.

The sample size of those who went dir­ectly in­to the work­force from fam­il­ies with at least one par­ent hold­ing a de­gree is too small to per­mit de­tailed com­par­is­ons with those from no-de­gree fam­il­ies who made the same choice. But the res­ults sug­gest that those from no-de­gree fam­il­ies who dir­ectly entered the work­force were more likely to be­lieve that edu­ca­tion after high school was not worth the cost, that they did not need fur­ther edu­ca­tion for the ca­reer they wanted, and that their high school edu­ca­tion did not pre­pare them for col­lege.

Carne­vale, at the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, says these poll find­ings track the res­ults of stud­ies that fol­low the eco­nom­ic ex­per­i­ence of Amer­ic­ans and their chil­dren over long peri­ods of time. “In the old days, say the 1980s, the par­ent­al in­come pre­dicted chil­dren’s suc­cess,” he said. “Now the [par­ent­al] edu­ca­tion­al vari­able ap­pears to be more power­ful than in­come.”

Stud­ies, Carne­vale said, sug­gest that par­ents’ edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment shapes out­comes for chil­dren through a “steady drum­beat” of at­ti­tudes and ex­per­i­ences. “It’s at­ti­tu­din­al, it’s ex­pect­a­tions, it’s peer ef­fect — the ex­tent to which aca­dem­ic suc­cess is re­spec­ted,” Carne­vale said. “It’s as­pir­a­tion­al. It’s all this self-iden­ti­fic­a­tion [and views on] ap­pro­pri­ate roles.”

The stu­dents from no-de­gree fam­il­ies who went on to col­lege im­me­di­ately after high school were ac­tu­ally as likely as those from two-de­gree fam­il­ies to re­port a very easy trans­ition or to be­lieve they were aca­dem­ic­ally pre­pared. But a gap re­mained in their abil­ity to nav­ig­ate all the way to gradu­ation: Just un­der three-fifths of those from the no-de­gree fam­il­ies who star­ted col­lege re­por­ted fin­ish­ing it, com­pared with roughly 70 per­cent of those from both two- and one-de­gree fam­il­ies.

With far few­er people from the no-de­gree than the one- or two-de­gree fam­il­ies seek­ing high­er edu­ca­tion in the first place, and few­er of those who do suc­ceed­ing in ob­tain­ing a de­gree, a for­mid­able com­ple­tion gap emerged in the sur­vey. In the end, 55 per­cent of all the chil­dren from two-de­gree fam­il­ies re­por­ted ob­tain­ing a col­lege or post­gradu­ate de­gree, com­pared with just 23 per­cent of the chil­dren from no-de­gree fam­il­ies.

These trends are so power­ful that it will likely take much stronger in­ter­ven­tions to re­verse the tend­ency of high­er edu­ca­tion to rep­lic­ate ad­vant­age from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, Carne­vale says. “In or­der to break this re­pro­duc­tion “¦ you’ve got to be pretty ag­gress­ive,” he says. “What’s strik­ing about all this as against the old days is, it’s more and more a sys­tem that doesn’t op­er­ate on the basis of “¦ bi­as against work­ing-class kids, or blacks, or Lati­nos. It really very much is “¦ in­sti­tu­tion­al, which is that the eco­nomy, in com­bin­a­tion with the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem, [has cre­ated] mech­an­isms that now are re­pro­du­cing class ad­vant­age. And [high­er] edu­ca­tion has be­come the cap­stone of that dy­nam­ic.”

Stephanie Czekalinski contributed to this article.
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