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College Degree: Key to the American Dream?
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, May 8, 2000

Seven years ago, a majority of Americans thought too many people were going to college. Today, all that's changed. A new survey by the Public Agenda reports that three in four Americans say there "cannot be too many people with education and training beyond high school"-a dramatic shift in public attitudes toward the value and the rewards of a college education.

"American views about the importance of higher education have now coalesced," declares Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, one of the survey's sponsors. "This is an important change in attitudes."

Indeed. The survey of more than 1,400 randomly selected adults, including oversamples of parents and minorities, documents the belief that a college degree is the key to the American dream. Nearly nine out of 10 survey respondents-87 percent-agree that a college education has become as important as a high school diploma once was. And more than six in 10 say a college degree is "absolutely necessary" for their children to succeed.

"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," said an Old Bridge, N.J., woman who participated in a focus group organized by Public Agenda, one of several convened around the country to discuss the issues raised in the poll.

The poll found that commitment to college is greatest among groups who have faced the greatest barriers to making it into the ivy halls of academe. "African American and Hispanic parents give college an even higher priority than do white parents," wrote John Immerwahr and Tony Foleno in their analysis of the survey results.

According to the poll, 65 percent of Hispanic parents and 47 percent of African American parents said that a college education is the single most important thing a young person needs to succeed, compared with 33 percent of white parents. That finding is critical, analysts argue, because it "shatters a persistent stereotype throughout much of America—the low levels of preparation for college can be traced to parents who don't value higher education enough." Nationally, about 20 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanics are enrolled in college, as are 30 percent of young African Americans and 37 percent of white non-Hispanics.

"Why is college important? Because we are black," said one Chicago focus group participant. "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."

One Latino father in El Paso offered a personal endorsement of the value of a college degree. "Every time I spoke to [my children], since they were babies, I said, 'After you finish college, then you can starting thinking about what you want to do.' I think it served me well. It did open doors."

The survey consistently found that Latinos value college more than blacks and far more than whites. Two in three Latino parents said a "college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today's work world." In contrast, two in three whites and a slight majority of blacks (54 percent), but only a third of Hispanics, agreed that "there are many ways to succeed in today's work world without a college degree."

In a focus group of white parents, members were quick to list good jobs that didn't require a college education. Said one Philadelphia man, "If you have the ability to sell you can go anywhere just as if you had a college degree, and you can make an enormous amount of money."

But the survey also found that many Americans—particularly minority parents—are deeply worried they won't be able to afford higher education for their children.

Among parents who expect their children to attend college, nearly seven in 10—69 percent—said they are at least "somewhat worried" that they won't be able to pay college tuition costs. Six in 10 parents of current high school students admitted they "should have done more" to financially prepare for their child's college education. But more than nine in 10 parents of prospective college students said they'll "find a way" to pay the bills. Nearly two of three parents strongly agreed that if someone really wants to go to college, "they can find a way to pay for it."

"If the desire is there, you make a way for your children," said one Philadelphia parent. "A lot of times you prepare from the day they're born. Other times if they're ready to graduate from high school and you don't have all the money, you make choices. You might not send them to the best."

But the overwhelming majority of Americans agree that you do send them somewhere, either to a less expensive state school or perhaps to a community college for two years. "When you graduate" from a university after spending two years at your local community college, said one Santa Clara, Calif., woman, "it doesn't say that you did your first two years at De Anza."

Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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