Poll: Parents and Teens Share (Often Unrealistic) Dreams About College

Most still see a college degree as ticket to the middle class. But they're unprepared for the cost.

Cameron Hinojosa studies homework and works on resumes at his home Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009 in Fresno, Calif. More than $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money was supposed to help teenagers find jobs this summer, but the effort barely made a dent in one of the bleakest job markets young workers have faced in more than 60 years. (National Journal)

This article is part of a special weeklong series on American education.

It's easy to assume that teenagers don't listen to their parents. But, according to the latest All State/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll on childhood in America, when it comes to expectations about school, kids are listening loud and clear--even through their earbuds.

If anything, the U.S. teenagers surveyed as part of the poll are much more likely to think their parents are concerned about how they're doing in school than parents seem to be. When asked about their parents' worries, teens guessed that the No. 1 concern was their performance in school. In fact, parents are most worried about unsafe driving. School performance ranked far down the list of parental anxieties, showing up as only the fifth-biggest concern of parents.

The disconnect between teenage and parental thinking wasn't limited to concerns about academic success. In general, teenagers were also more likely to say that they have more opportunities to get ahead than their parents did at the same age (62 percent of teenagers agreed, compared with 41 percent of parents of teenagers). They were also far less negative than parents on the question of whether it is better to be a teenager in America today than decades ago. Fifty-four percent of teenagers reported that this is a preferable time to be a teen; only 18 percent of teenagers' parents thought the same. (Cue the "Kids these days!" rant.)

It may be that both teenagers and parents are prone to overestimate their own importance. Each group, for example, said it played the greatest role in ensuring success in school. Sixty-eight percent of parents of school-age kids said that parents had the most responsibility for academic success. But when asked the same question, 81 percents of teenagers said they are most responsible for their achievements. Only 12 percent of teens believe that parents ultimately determine school performance. (On a related question, parents worried that they didn't have sufficient time to focus on their kids--66 percent of parents of teenagers said this was a more accurate description of their situation than being overly involved helicopter parents. Teenagers do not agree, with 68 percent reporting that their parents are too closely involved in every aspect of their lives.)

If there is one topic on which parents and teenagers do see eye-to-eye, it's on the value of a college degree. They even share relatively unrealistic views on the likelihood of teenagers going on to attend a four-year college and on how they would pay for a college degree. Both parents and teenagers agree that college provides a ticket to the middle class, and that this benefit outweighes the economic burdens that accompany student loan debt. Accordingly, a full 71 percent of parents of school-age children told pollsters that they expect their kids will go to a four-year college, and 69 percent of teenagers said they expect to attend a four-year school. Those hopes don't track with statistics that show slightly fewer than 40 percent of high school graduates enrolling in four-year colleges. (Approximately 67 percent of 2012 high school graduates enrolled at higher education institutions, but 40 percent of them attended either part time or enrolled at two-year colleges or trade schools.)

Parents in two-degree households are the most likely to assume that their children will attend a four-year college--91 percent held this view compared with 64 percent of parents in households where no one has a college degree. And there are racial divides as well: Roughly three-quarters of African-American parents expect their children to go to a four-year college, slightly higher than the 71 percent of white parents who believe the same.

And how do families expect to pay for all of these four-year degrees? The answer may explain why so many students end up dropping out--or taking breaks from their college studies--because of financial concerns and difficulties. Sixty percent of parents and a full 78 percent of teenagers say they are counting on grants and scholarships to help finance the cost of college education. That is no doubt the encouraging message they're hearing from well-meaning teachers and counselors who want to nurture college dreams. But with fewer than 40 percent of college students receiving Pell Grant money--and a far smaller number benefiting from merit-based scholarships--that leaves a families with tuition-and-board sticker shock.

This poll, which explored how Americans assess the state of childhood and parenthood, surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones Sept. 3-7. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. In addition, National Journal conducted a separate online survey of 300 teenagers ages 13 to 18 (only including 18-year-olds who are still in high school); teen participants received a small compensation for responding. The survey is reflective of the demographics of American teens, but it does not carry the same statistical validity as the random phone survey of adults.