College Board/National Journal Poll

Why Minorities Are More Optimistic About the Value of College

Whites are more dubious than minorities that a college degree puts graduates on the path to success.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 23: Students take a break at Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA on April 23, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. According to reports, half of recent college graduates with bachelor's degrees are finding themselves underemployed or jobless. 
Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
Nov. 7, 2013, midnight

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. (John Moore/Getty Im­ages)

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.” Pricey at­tire: Col­lege costs have skyrock­eted. (MAN­DEL NGAN/AFP/Getty­Im­ages)

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.

GOV­ERN­MENT’S ROLE

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.”

EX­PLAIN­ING DIS­PAR­IT­IES

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.

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Contributions by Michael Mellody
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