Executive Summary
Finding One
Finding Two
Finding Three
Finding Four
Finding Five
Supporting Tables
About the Author
Public Agenda
The National Center for Public Policy
Consortium for Policy Research
The National Center for Postsecondary Improvement

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Page 5 of 18

Finding One: Higher Education, More Important than Ever

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 that important.

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 with degrees.

-- 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.



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