Higher education is perceived as extremely important, and for most people a
college education has become the necessary admission ticket to good jobs and a middle-class
lifestyle. Parents of high school students place especially high importance on a
college education, and African American and Hispanic parents give college an even
higher priority than do white parents. All groups believe that the country should
ensure that no qualified and motivated student is excluded from a college education
because of the cost.
"Today You Don't Even Question Whether You Are Going to College."
Higher education has taken on enormous importance for many Americans. Several in
our focus groups reflected on the difference a college education -- or the lack of
one -- had made in their own lives, while others spoke of the impact of higher education
on the lives of their children.
My husband did not go to college. He works for SEPTA [the local transit authority]
and he has advanced in salary and promotions along the way, but he has always said
he would have made so much more money if he did have his college degree.
-- Woman, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I see my son learning more socially, and growing in ways I never would have imagined,
and I don't think that would have happened if he had gone into the workforce.
-- Man, Santa Clara, California
The survey results, based on interviews with more than 1,400 Americans, document
the public's perception that a college education is essential for anyone who wants
to have a successful life in contemporary America. Seventy-seven percent say that
getting a college education is more important than it was 10 years ago and a towering
87% agree that a college education has become as important as a high school diploma
used to be. As a woman in our focus group in Old Bridge, New Jersey, said:
Today you don't even question whether you are going to college. 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.
When people talk about higher education, they usually mention first the need for
a college education as a necessary prerequisite for finding a good job. It is clear,
however, that people aren't just thinking about a first job; instead they seem to
be thinking about the long term as well. Several of our respondents spontaneously
expressed concern that young people might be shortchanging themselves by taking high-paying
jobs without getting the education they will need for the rest of their lives.
Where I work, if someone knows Java and some other languages, we will hire
them even if they haven't been to college. But I wonder in a few years, will there
be a time when that will change and we will let them go?
-- Woman, Santa Clara, California
Thirty years ago if you had your high school diploma, the work culture was that you
got into a company and worked your way up and retired. In today's economy, you don't
last that long. You need a college education if you're going to rise in the companies;
if you're going to last for a long time, you gotta have your degree.
-- Man, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Traditionally, Americans have seen higher education as only
one of many factors that are important for success. Other studies have found that
when respondents are asked to select the most important quality for success, they
rate things such as hard work ahead of a college education.1
In our survey, however, a college education topped the list of responses when we
asked people to choose the one thing that can most help a person succeed in the world
today. The largest percentage (35%) chose a college education; this response scored
higher than other compelling factors, such as knowing how to get along with people
(30%) and having a good work ethic (26%). (See Table 3.)
Our respondents were by no means trapped by the stereotypical perception that higher
education is only for 18-year-olds. They know that people of all ages enroll in higher
education, and many spoke with pride of their own achievements as adult learners
(and even of the achievements of their parents). As the following focus group comments
suggest, however, when people think of higher education, they are most concerned
with what happens to recent high school graduates.
When I think of an older person going back to school -- my mother started college
as a mature woman -- I think of people who already have a job and are either doing
it for their own self-image, or they're looking for a promotion in their job. I generally
think of the high school student as needing the college diploma to get a job, whereas
the older person who has gone back probably already has a job, but may be looking
for something better.
-- Woman, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I think the six years after high school are the most important years of your life
as far as determining your adulthood and what is going to happen down the line.
-- Man, Santa Clara, California
The Perspective of Parents
Because of the perceived importance of higher education for recent high school graduates,
we conducted focus groups specifically with parents and additional interviews with
parents of high school students. Parents are convinced that college is a vital experience
for their children. As Table 1 shows, 62%
of parents of high school students say that a college education is absolutely necessary
for their own children, and another 35% describe a college education as helpful but
not absolutely necessary. Only a minuscule 3% say that a college education is not
The market demands it. Before you could get a good job with a high school graduation.
Now you need a college degree, a master's, or even a Ph.D. The future market is going
to be asking for that.
-- Woman, Old Bridge, New Jersey
When parents think about their children's future, they see a college education
as vital to their children's success, and when they say they want a college education
for their children, they most frequently mean an education in a four-year college.
Speaking about their oldest child in high school, fully 77% of parents feel that
a college education would be the best thing for that child, with 55% hoping for a
four-year college experience and another 22% thinking that a community college would
be best. Only 16% say that it would be best for their child to go to trade school
(see Table 2).
Parents' preference for a college education for their children, rather than trade
school, complements their view of college not just as the ticket to a good income
but also as an entry to higher standing and social status. In focus groups, people
frequently commented that there are not enough people who are learning well-paying
trades such as plumbing, and they spoke favorably of the need for more trade schools.
When we asked parents of high schoolers what they would recommend to a recent high
school graduate from a low-income family who had good grades but low test scores,
47% -- a plurality of this group -- recommended trade school for such a student,
presumably thinking that it would be a ticket to a well-paying job. But, at the same
time, trade school is not what most people want for their own children. They want
their children not only to have a job with good pay, but also to have the kind of
job and social standing that they see as following from a college education.
Even More Important for Minorities
Because Public Agenda conducted additional survey interviews and focus groups with
African American and Hispanic parents of high school students, this study affords
the unique opportunity to compare the attitudes of these two groups with white parents,
as well as with the general public. A host of explanations have been offered as to
why Hispanic and African American participation rates in higher education are lower
than the population as a whole. Some have argued that higher rates of poverty in
these groups make access to higher education more difficult; others suggest that
predominantly black or Hispanic high schools are less successful in preparing students
for college work. It is also sometimes suggested that members of these minority groups,
compared to other populations, do not place as high a value on higher education.
The findings from this study seem conclusively to eliminate this last reason. Higher
education is important for all Americans, but it is especially important to African
American and Hispanic parents, who are significantly more likely to emphasize higher
education than either white parents or the population as a whole.
The high value on college education is particularly clear when
we ask people how important a college education is for success in later life. As
Table 3 demonstrates, Hispanic parents are
the most likely to assign high importance to higher education, followed by African
American parents and then by white parents. When we ask the general public which
factor is most important for success, no single factor commands majority support.
The largest percentage (35%) do say that a college education is most important, but
almost equally high percentages opt for other factors, such as knowing how to get
along with people (30%) or a good work ethic (26%). But when we turn to the responses
of minority parents, a much higher level of commitment emerges, with 65% of Hispanic
parents identifying a college education as the most important factor, and 47% of
African American parents. The Hispanic response, in other words, is nearly double
that of the population in general.
This emphasis on college also surfaced in a focus group with African American parents
in Chicago and in another with Hispanic parents in El Paso. The respondents frequently
spoke of higher education as the key to economic and social mobility, and as one
possible way to overcome the barriers of poverty and prejudice.
Why is college important? Because we are black. 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 that is against you.
-- Woman, Chicago, Illinois
A focus group of Hispanic parents in El Paso was particularly engaged by this topic.
These parents dispelled the notion that as immigrants, or children of immigrants,
they were unaware of the importance of college education in American society. In
fact, these parents felt that their families' status as recent immigrants enabled
them to recognize the importance of higher education even more clearly. As one father
in the group said:
Every time I spoke to [my kids], since 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.
The difference between the views of Hispanic and African American parents versus
white parents emerges even more sharply when we ask people whether it is possible
to be successful in the workplace without a college education. Most white parents
feel that although higher education is important, it is not absolutely necessary.
By more than a two-to-one margin (66% to 32%), white parents agree that there are
still ways to succeed in American society without a college education. Respondents
in focus groups were quick to give examples of jobs where success does not depend
on a college education. A man in Philadelphia talked about sales:
Sales requires mostly an ability to sell. If you have an ability to sell you
can go anywhere just as if you had a college degree, and you can make an enormous
amount of money.
When we interviewed Hispanic and African American parents, however,
the picture changes substantially. Hispanic parents take the opposite view from the
population in general, with a margin of almost two-to-one (65% to 34%) saying that
a college education is, in fact, necessary for success. As Table
4 shows, African American attitudes fall in between the views of the population
as a whole and the strong position taken by Hispanic parents.
A Gap Between Aspiration and Participation
The emphasis that parents place on higher education becomes even more striking when
we compare it to the actual participation rates of the various groups. As Table
5 shows, participation in higher education is lowest among Hispanics, somewhat
higher among African Americans and highest among whites. Significantly, the value
placed on college education is highest among those who have the lowest rates of participation.
Hispanics, who have the lowest participation rates, are the most likely to stress
the importance of higher education.
The Societal Perspective
In addition to viewing higher education as important for the individual, the people
we interviewed also see higher education as important for society at large. The comments
from focus groups help illustrate this conviction:
A certain percentage of these college graduates are going to be running this
country. These are the leaders of the country.
-- Man, Old Bridge, New Jersey
If there's a corporation moving into the city, they're going to want people
-- Man, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In the survey, we asked whether it was possible that the country could reach a point
where too many people have a college degree, or whether this was one area where there
could never be too much of a good thing. More than three out of four (76%) said that
the country could never have too many college graduates. This stands in contrast
to what we saw in our first national survey in 1993, just as the country was pulling
out of a recession. At that time, a majority (54%) agreed that "too many people
are going to college instead of alternatives to college, where they can learn trades
like plumbing or computer repair." Since the question wording on this issue
differs in 1993 and 1999, the results are not strictly comparable. However, there
seems to be a shift in public sentiment, perhaps reflecting the dramatically expanding
job prospects available to recent college graduates in 1999, compared to the prospects
of college graduates in 1993. In 1993, people in focus groups frequently talked of
the problem of over-education, complete with stories about Ph.D.s driving taxicabs.
In 1999, there was little mention of this, and people were much more likely to talk
about the need for having educated people in the area to attract industries.
The Importance of Opportunity
Given the importance that people place on higher education, it is hardly surprising
that they are equally concerned that everyone who is qualified and motivated has
the opportunity to attend a college or university. Access to higher education, in
the eyes of many people, is equivalent to access to the current version of the American
dream. In effect, the public believes that providing people with opportunities for
higher education is the way American society promotes social mobility. As Table
6 shows, there is a virtual consensus (93%) that the nation should not allow
the price of a higher education to keep qualified and motivated students from going
to college. This value is shared by whites, African Americans and Hispanics.