|| INTRODUCTION: THE CONTEXT FOR THIS STUDY
In 2000, Public Agenda conducted an extensive survey of the attitudes of the parents of high school students on the topic of higher education for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.2 Perhaps not surprisingly, the study found that parents across the country place great emphasis on a higher education for their children. A miniscule three percent of the parents say that a college education is not that important for their own child. Yet, while almost all parents today place great value on higher education, Hispanic parents are even more likely to endorse its importance.
In the survey, we asked parents, for example, if college is necessary for success in today's world, or if there are still many paths to success without college. Despite their support of college education for their own children, only about a third of non-Hispanic white parents say that it is impossible to succeed without going to college. In other words, the majority of non-Hispanic white parents (63%) say that there are still many ways to succeed without going to college. In focus groups, non-Hispanic white parents often illustrate this by mentioning entrepreneurs (e.g., Bill Gates), or highly successful people in fields such as sales or entertainment. By contrast, Hispanic parents are much more likely to see college as an absolute necessity, with nearly twice as many Hispanic parents saying that it is virtually impossible to make it in today's world without a college education (see figure 1).
A Gap Between Intentions and Reality
When we look at the actual rates of college participation, however, a completely different picture emerges. A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that while many Hispanic high school graduates eventually enroll in some form of college, most Hispanic high school graduates make choices that are less likely to lead to the completion of a bachelor's degree. In many cases, they delay college attendance rather than going on to college immediately after graduating from high school, they pursue their studies only on a part-time basis, or they go to a community college rather than a four-year institution.3 The result is that, although Hispanic parents are more likely to emphasize the importance of getting a college education, Hispanic students are significantly less likely to complete either a two-year or a four-year degree.4
The chief goal of this series of focus groups was to explore possible reasons for this discrepancy between intentions and reality in the Hispanic community. We hoped that by holding in-depth conversations with high school seniors, we could form hypotheses about how and why they make the choices they do about their educational plans. We also were able to build on several earlier Public Agenda studies among African-American families and among families in different economic circumstances.
The Methodology and its Limitations
The observations presented in this report should be considered hypotheses for further exploration and research, not definitive findings. They are tentative for several reasons. Perhaps most important is that they are based on focus-group research, rather than on large-scale, random-sample surveys. Focus groups can be enormously useful tools for observing how people talk about issues and for generating hypotheses for further research. However, they are not reliable predictors of how many people hold a particular viewpoint, or in this case, how common some of the attitudes we describe really are among Hispanic high school seniors.
Second, our observations are limited because they rely mainly on the perceptions of high school students who may or may not have a full and accurate grasp of their own college potential. In focus groups, for example, a student sometimes appeared to have college potential because he or she seemed alert and intelligent, and reported good grades in high school; however, we did not verify the student's academic record or talk to the teachers. And, because our conversations took place in the "public setting" of a focus group, we did not ask any of the probing follow-up questions that we might normally include in a confidential telephone survey.
A last caveat is that, in this study, we talked only to Hispanic students and parents, so we have no way to compare what they said to what we might hear from youngsters in other population groups. Specifically, we do not know whether these findings are a result of class or of ethnic background. Indeed, we believe that many of the factors we found may be equally true of youth from working-class and poverty-level families, regardless of ethnic or racial background. We have interviewed parents of high school students in connection with other research projects, so, to a limited extent, we were able to draw on that material for comparisons.
In total, we interviewed 50 high school seniors, in San Antonio, Santa Clara (California), Tucson, Chicago, and New York. While the majority of those students were of Mexican ancestry, we also talked to students whose families had come from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Central America. All of the students were seniors who said they were expecting to graduate from high school. Some were planning to go to college in the fall, others were not. We also interviewed a group of 14 teachers in San Antonio and 4 parents of high school seniors in Tucson. All of the interviews were conducted in May of 2002.
During this study, we worked closely with an advisory group of educators (see sidebar) who helped us formulate our interview strategies and who observed the first sets of groups from behind a one-way mirror. Their commentaries, which explore the implications of our findings, are included at the end of this report.
3 Richard Fry, Latinos in Higher Education: Many Enroll, Too Few Graduate (Washington, D.C.: Pew Hispanic Center, 2002), pp. v-vi.
4 Ibid., p. 7.