Poll: Parents and Teens Share (Often Unrealistic) Dreams About College

Most still see a college degree as ticket to the middle class. But they’re unprepared for the cost.

Cameron Hinojosa studies homework and works on resumes at his home Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009 in Fresno, Calif. More than $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money was supposed to help teenagers find jobs this summer, but the effort barely made a dent in one of the bleakest job markets young workers have faced in more than 60 years.
National Journal
Amy Sullivan
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Amy Sullivan
Sept. 24, 2013, 11:07 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a spe­cial weeklong series on Amer­ic­an edu­ca­tion.

It’s easy to as­sume that teen­agers don’t listen to their par­ents. But, ac­cord­ing to the latest All State/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll on child­hood in Amer­ica, when it comes to ex­pect­a­tions about school, kids are listen­ing loud and clear—even through their ear­buds.

If any­thing, the U.S. teen­agers sur­veyed as part of the poll are much more likely to think their par­ents are con­cerned about how they’re do­ing in school than par­ents seem to be. When asked about their par­ents’ wor­ries, teens guessed that the No. 1 con­cern was their per­form­ance in school. In fact, par­ents are most wor­ried about un­safe driv­ing. School per­form­ance ranked far down the list of par­ent­al anxi­et­ies, show­ing up as only the fifth-biggest con­cern of par­ents. 

The dis­con­nect between teen­age and par­ent­al think­ing wasn’t lim­ited to con­cerns about aca­dem­ic suc­cess. In gen­er­al, teen­agers were also more likely to say that they have more op­por­tun­it­ies to get ahead than their par­ents did at the same age (62 per­cent of teen­agers agreed, com­pared with 41 per­cent of par­ents of teen­agers). They were also far less neg­at­ive than par­ents on the ques­tion of wheth­er it is bet­ter to be a teen­ager in Amer­ica today than dec­ades ago. Fifty-four per­cent of teen­agers re­por­ted that this is a prefer­able time to be a teen; only 18 per­cent of teen­agers’ par­ents thought the same. (Cue the “Kids these days!” rant.)

It may be that both teen­agers and par­ents are prone to over­es­tim­ate their own im­port­ance. Each group, for ex­ample, said it played the greatest role in en­sur­ing suc­cess in school. Sixty-eight per­cent of par­ents of school-age kids said that par­ents had the most re­spons­ib­il­ity for aca­dem­ic suc­cess. But when asked the same ques­tion, 81 per­cents of teen­agers said they are most re­spons­ible for their achieve­ments. Only 12 per­cent of teens be­lieve that par­ents ul­ti­mately de­term­ine school per­form­ance. (On a re­lated ques­tion, par­ents wor­ried that they didn’t have suf­fi­cient time to fo­cus on their kids—66 per­cent of par­ents of teen­agers said this was a more ac­cur­ate de­scrip­tion of their situ­ation than be­ing overly in­volved heli­copter par­ents. Teen­agers do not agree, with 68 per­cent re­port­ing that their par­ents are too closely in­volved in every as­pect of their lives.)

If there is one top­ic on which par­ents and teen­agers do see eye-to-eye, it’s on the value of a col­lege de­gree. They even share re­l­at­ively un­real­ist­ic views on the like­li­hood of teen­agers go­ing on to at­tend a four-year col­lege and on how they would pay for a col­lege de­gree. Both par­ents and teen­agers agree that col­lege provides a tick­et to the middle class, and that this be­ne­fit out­weighes the eco­nom­ic bur­dens that ac­com­pany stu­dent loan debt. Ac­cord­ingly, a full 71 per­cent of par­ents of school-age chil­dren told poll­sters that they ex­pect their kids will go to a four-year col­lege, and 69 per­cent of teen­agers said they ex­pect to at­tend a four-year school. Those hopes don’t track with stat­ist­ics that show slightly few­er than 40 per­cent of high school gradu­ates en­rolling in four-year col­leges. (Ap­prox­im­ately 67 per­cent of 2012 high school gradu­ates en­rolled at high­er edu­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions, but 40 per­cent of them at­ten­ded either part time or en­rolled at two-year col­leges or trade schools.)

Par­ents in two-de­gree house­holds are the most likely to as­sume that their chil­dren will at­tend a four-year col­lege—91 per­cent held this view com­pared with 64 per­cent of par­ents in house­holds where no one has a col­lege de­gree. And there are ra­cial di­vides as well: Roughly three-quar­ters of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an par­ents ex­pect their chil­dren to go to a four-year col­lege, slightly high­er than the 71 per­cent of white par­ents who be­lieve the same. 

And how do fam­il­ies ex­pect to pay for all of these four-year de­grees? The an­swer may ex­plain why so many stu­dents end up drop­ping out—or tak­ing breaks from their col­lege stud­ies—be­cause of fin­an­cial con­cerns and dif­fi­culties. Sixty per­cent of par­ents and a full 78 per­cent of teen­agers say they are count­ing on grants and schol­ar­ships to help fin­ance the cost of col­lege edu­ca­tion. That is no doubt the en­cour­aging mes­sage they’re hear­ing from well-mean­ing teach­ers and coun­selors who want to nur­ture col­lege dreams. But with few­er than 40 per­cent of col­lege stu­dents re­ceiv­ing Pell Grant money—and a far smal­ler num­ber be­ne­fit­ing from mer­it-based schol­ar­ships—that leaves a fam­il­ies with tu­ition-and-board stick­er shock.

This poll, which ex­plored how Amer­ic­ans as­sess the state of child­hood and par­ent­hood, sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones Sept. 3-7. The sur­vey has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points. In ad­di­tion, Na­tion­al Journ­al con­duc­ted a sep­ar­ate on­line sur­vey of 300 teen­agers ages 13 to 18 (only in­clud­ing 18-year-olds who are still in high school); teen par­ti­cipants re­ceived a small com­pens­a­tion for re­spond­ing. The sur­vey is re­flect­ive of the demo­graph­ics of Amer­ic­an teens, but it does not carry the same stat­ist­ic­al valid­ity as the ran­dom phone sur­vey of adults.

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