Even poll respondents on track to earn degrees, in followup interviews, presented a more nuanced view of the college credential. "Most jobs now require both experience and a degree," said 22-year-old Anthony Libutti of Staten Island, who is studying accounting, finance, and economics at the College of Staten Island and simultaneously working for a construction company. "Part of college is being able to make those networking connections."
On the other hand, even self-avowed technophobes see mastery of computer skills as vital in a world where the economy and career paths change so rapidly and relentlessly. William O'Shea, 79, of Connecticut worked for years as a school superintendent before he retired in 1997. During that time, he says he blissfully never used computers that much. Now, he says, no one in the workplace would be able to get away with that behavior. "It is indispensable now. The world has sped up," he said.
When asked about other important skills for a successful career, O'Shea, like most poll respondents from both the younger and older cohort, cited social intelligence and the ability to work well with different people. "You have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of human nature, if you want to climb the ladder and appeal to other people," he said.
And, what about the old reliable standby, the college degree? Even O'Shea, a former educator, sounded a little down on it. "It carries the mystique of success," he said. "The idea of the importance of going to college and graduating depends on the school. There are colleges and then, there are colleges."
Attitudes on the centrality of the college degree shifted slightly across racial and ethnic lines, as well as party affiliation. African-American and Hispanic respondents, both young and old, viewed a college degree as a more important asset or skill than whites did. Democrats also overwhelmingly listed it as a higher priority, compared to Republican and independent voters.
Even presence of the student debt did not affect younger people's assessment of college as a necessary skill for the workplace. Although young people with college debts often report more financial strain than those without them, the percentage of young people, with and without student debt, who saw college as a "very important" skill was virtually identical. The same held true for young people, regardless of whether their parents attended college.
The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll is the 23rd in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll explored what Americans consider the best choices in career, family and community to achieve success in life, and how the perspective on those choices of those just starting out compares with older generations. The poll surveyed 900 adults by landline and cell phones from May 17 through 27, 2015, as well as an oversample of 200 young adults aged 18-24, also by landline and cell phone. These interviews were then weighted by age, gender and race/ethnicity to produce a nationally representative sample of 1,000. A national survey of 1,000 respondents has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Consulting's Strategic Communications practice. On many topics throughout the survey, younger respondents were asked questions in the context of their current expectations and experiences, while older respondents were asked questions retrospectively referring to the time in which they were getting started.