White People Are Skeptical About the Value of a College Degree

Minorities, on the other hand, continue to see educational attainment as the key to fulfilling the American Dream.
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Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Jason Parkinson, a 29-year-old electrician from Cleveland, doesn't consider it much of a handicap that he never obtained a four-year college degree after high school. "It doesn't do any good anymore," he says. "You get a four-year degree, you work at a fast-food restaurant. You can go to trades and manufacturing…. I'm not big on going to college for a career that might not even be there in 10 years."

Jose Stathas, a 47-year-old assistant to the owner at a pottery company in Buena Park, Calif., didn't finish college either, but he believes he would be better off if he had. "I don't have a four-year degree, and I've learned the hard way that it can affect how much you make," he says. "It gives you opportunities to get jobs in the competitive marketplace we have now."

Those contrasting responses from Parkinson, who is white, and Stathas, who is Hispanic, point to one of the most intriguing findings in a new College Board/National Journal Next America Poll. While minorities worry more than whites about affording the cost of higher education, they are more likely to see a payoff from the investment for themselves and for the country overall.

The survey, which measures assessments of the pathways to opportunity, found broad agreement among whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans that the U.S. still provides young people from any racial background an adequate chance to succeed—and that the primary and secondary schools in their neighborhood are preparing them to do so. But on several fronts, the poll said minorities were considerably more optimistic than whites that more access to education will mean more opportunity, both personally and throughout the economy.

Solid majorities of Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and, to a slightly lesser extent, African-Americans all agreed that "young people today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful." Slightly fewer than half of whites endorsed that sentiment. That was a sharp drop among whites just since fall 2012, when the Next America survey last measured these attitudes. Minorities were also far more likely than whites to say the economy would benefit if the United States meets President Obama's goal of increasing by half the share of Americans with postsecondary degrees through 2020. "The higher the education mark, the more competitive we're going to be in the world economy," Stathas said. "There's a lot of talk of the rise and fall of the U.S. Unless we step it up a notch, there are going to be parts of the world that eat our lunch."

From these contrasting goals flow differing attitudes about the value of channeling more public resources toward education. On several key questions, the poll found a majority supporting public action to improve the availability and affordability of higher education, but a consistent racial divide ran through the data. Minorities were much more likely than whites, for instance, to believe that increasing spending on education would do more than cutting taxes to improve the economy in their community. And both whites and Asians were far more likely than Hispanics and African-Americans to argue that the best way to control mounting student-loan debt is for colleges to hold down costs, rather than for government to provide greater financial assistance. On each of these choices, older whites expressed more skepticism than younger ones about the value of additional public investment in education.  

Although workers with a college degree continue to enjoy much higher incomes and lower unemployment rates than those without one, these results find a racial divergence in the interpretation of the sustained economic slowdown since the Great Recession. While most minority families continue to see educational attainment as the key to fulfilling the American Dream that each generation will live better than its predecessor, this survey, like other recent polls, suggests that many whites appear uncertain that any path can still yield that outcome.

The College Board/National Journal Next America Poll examined public attitudes about pathways to opportunity, and the persistence of educational and economic gaps among the races, in an increasingly diversifying America. The poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,272 adults ages 18 and older Oct. 14-24, in English and Spanish, through landlines and cell phones. It includes over-samples of 245 African-Americans, 229 Hispanics, and 107 Asian-Americans; the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points for the overall sample, 5.3 percentage points for whites, 8.8 percentage points for African-Americans and Hispanics, and 14.7 percentage points for Asian-Americans. This survey is one component of National Journal's Next America project, which examines how changing demography is affecting the national agenda.

Areas of Consensus

On several fronts, the poll found convergence among all four of the major groups surveyed. On one basic measure, about nine in 10 respondents in each group described themselves as satisfied with their family life. Roughly four in five whites, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics also described themselves as satisfied "with the way things are going in your community today," although only about three in five African-Americans agreed.

The general consensus continued across some fundamental questions about the availability of opportunity. Asked whether "children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have an equal opportunity to succeed," 69 percent of Asian-Americans, 64 percent of whites, and 61 percent of Hispanics said yes; only African-Americans remained more qualified, with 55 percent agreeing. Asked then whether "children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have an adequate opportunity to succeed," about three-fourths of both Asians and Hispanics and almost two-thirds of whites said yes; again, African-Americans demurred slightly more, with 57 percent agreeing.

The lines crossed even more closely in assessments of local schools. Almost exactly three-fifths of all four groups said they believed schools in their neighborhoods are preparing children "to perform college work successfully." The correlation between income and test results and other measures of success, such as college completion, may belie that confidence, but this survey continued a long-standing pattern in polls of Americans emphasizing individuals' capacity and responsibility to overcome their circumstances. Faith in the quality of local schools was virtually identical for whites and nonwhites, including those with and without college degrees, and for families at all points along the income spectrum. In each case, almost exactly three-fifths gave their local schools good grades. Kari Rufus, 37, a white stay-at-home mother in Rochester N.Y., was typical. "It just seems like [today's students] are prepared for college, and when I went to school, they really didn't [prepare us]," she said. "Once you get into high school, you can take college classes that weren't offered to me."

Rufus was actually the exception in her assessment of her personal experience. Asked if their own education had prepared them "to do college work successfully," 77 percent of Asian-Americans, 74 percent of African-Americans, 71 percent of whites, and 66 percent of Hispanics said yes. In all four groups similar percentages (roughly one-third of whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans, and one-fourth of Asian-Americans) said they were the first in their family to attend college. And about four-fifths of both Asian- and African-Americans said their parents had encouraged them to attend college; Hispanics (at 63 percent) and whites (at 62 percent) were somewhat less likely to say so.

Seen through a stronger lens, that final question captured some of the divergence in attitudes about higher education between whites and minorities. Among nonwhites, big majorities of those with college degrees (84 percent) and without them (69 percent) said their parents had encouraged them to pursue higher education. But the result among whites produced a stark educational cleavage: While a resounding 87 percent of those with a degree said their parents had encouraged them to obtain it, only 51 percent of those without degrees said they had received such encouragement. Still, the survey captures an unmistakable generational shift in expectations: More than three-fourths of whites and nonwhites younger than 50 reported that their parents encouraged them to attend college.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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