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National CrossTalk Spring 2000
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

4 of 5 Stories

Racial Divide
A new national survey explores attitudes toward higher education

AFRICAN AMERICAN AND Hispanic parents value higher education even more than their white counterparts, although their children participate in it less, a new national survey has found.

When parents of high school students were asked what is most vital for a successful life, 65 percent of Hispanics, and 47 percent of African Americans, said a college education was the most important factor, while only 33 percent of white parents agreed. White parents placed almost equal importance on "knowing how to get along with people" and "a good work ethic."

Two-thirds of white parents surveyed said there still are ways to succeed in American life without a college education, but only 54 percent of African American parents, and 34 percent of Hispanics, agreed with that statement.

Despite this strong belief in the importance of higher education, Hispanics and African Americans attend colleges and universities in much smaller numbers than whites.

Forty-one percent of whites between the ages of 18 and 24 enroll in some kind of postsecondary education, but only 30 percent of African Americans of the same age, and 22 percent of Hispanics, join them, according to U.S. Census figures.

Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda, which conducted the survey, warned that this disparity posed a potential problem for American higher education. "The rising aspirations of these minority groups are closely intertwined with their hopes of educating the next generation," Wadsworth said. "If an economic downturn makes access to higher education more difficult for minority groups, then the dashed hopes that follow could be especially disheartening."

Public Agenda is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that regularly reports on public attitudes about major policy issues. This survey was sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, of San Jose, California, and the Institute for Research in Higher Education, a research center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The survey included telephone interviews with 1,015 members of the general public, as well as an "oversample" of more than 600 African American, Hispanic and white parents of high school students.

The report was written by John Immerwahr, who is a senior research fellow at Public Agenda and associate vice president for academic affairs at Villanova University. It is available through the Public Agenda Web site:

"In our conversations and surveys with Americans from all parts of the country, it has become clear that in today's booming high-tech economy, a college education has replaced the high school diploma as the gateway to the middle class," Immerwahr wrote.

Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed said that a college education is more important now than it was ten years ago, and 87 percent said a college education was as important as a high school diploma used to be.

"Today you don't even question whether you are going to college," said a New Jersey woman who participated in one of eight focus groups that helped to shape the survey questions. "It's the sign of the times. When I was growing up, what was important was to make the home front, with marriage and children, but today it is college."

If anything, minority parents feel even more strongly about the need for education beyond high school.

"Why is college important?" asked an African American woman attending a Chicago focus group. "It is the way that society is set up. We are the underdog already, so if you don't have a college education, it is another thing against you."

At a focus group in El Paso, a Hispanic father of a high school student said, "Every time I spoke to [my kids] after they were babies, I said, ‘After you finish college, then you can start thinking about what you want to do.' I think it served me well. It did open doors."

Other key findings of the survey include:

  • Ninety-three percent said the nation should not allow cost to keep qualified and motivated students from attending college.
  • The general public believes financial aid should be provided for students who cannot afford college, but they also think students should pay for part of their education and that financial aid should go only to those "who work hard and seem to take individual responsibility," in the words of the report.
  • Seventy-three percent believe that colleges and universities must do more to cut costs and improve efficiency, while 60 percent think administrators should keep tuition fees from rising.
  • Although 69 percent of parents surveyed said they were either "very" or "somewhat" worried about paying for college, 93 percent said they "will find a way to work out the costs."

-- William Trombley

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