Areas of Disagreement
While whites and minorities didn't differ much in their expectations about whether their own children would attend school, the poll captured larger differences between the groups on broader questions about the value of higher education and government's role in promoting it.
Overall, the poll concluded, adults divided quite closely over the value of higher education, with 52 percent agreeing that young people "today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful," and 46 percent saying they did not. That's a notable drop from the fall 2012 Next America Poll, when 61 percent said success required a degree and 37 percent said it did not. The falloff was particularly sharp among whites (from 57 percent last fall to 47 percent now) and African-Americans (from 67 percent to 55 percent), although the latter remained more likely to consider a degree indispensable. Opinion among Hispanics didn't change much (73 percent viewed a degree as critical in 2012, and 70 percent did so this year). Three-fifths of Asians, who were not over-sampled in the 2012 poll, viewed a degree as essential in this survey.
Follow-up interviews with poll respondents made clear that disillusionment about the value of college is rooted in the difficulties many young graduates have faced in the job market. Ed Peters is an African-American construction manager in Washington who is frustrated by the difficulties his son has encountered despite having a four-year degree "that took a lot of money to get him through." After college, Peters said, his son worked for the post office but has since been laid off. "Now he's a college-educated kid with no job, and he's having an ugly time trying to get one," Peters sighed. "It seems like such a waste."
Yet the interviews also revealed a sense among many respondents that although a college degree does not guarantee economic security, it's the necessary ante for just competing in the game. "The job market is so awful now, and people don't take you seriously with anything less," said Linda Ahlskog, a part-Hispanic graphic-design student in Natchitoches, La. Jordan Machado, a Hispanic from Cypress, Calif., who runs his own business, said he would "support" his daughter if she decided to join the military or learn a trade, but "especially nowadays … in order to get that middle-class money, you need to have that degree." Even Parkinson, the Ohio electrician, although skeptical of the four-year commitment, is working to complete a two-year degree. "I'm more than halfway there, I might as well get it. It never hurts to get an education or degree, but as far as going to a four-year college and taking on major debt, you might not have a job when you get done. I wouldn't do it."
Responses to this core question produced intriguing cross-cutting patterns. Both white and nonwhite women were measurably more likely than men to view college as essential (that perspective undoubtedly informs the trend in which women now earn most degrees). Minorities with a college degree, perhaps not surprisingly, were more likely (71 percent) than minorities without one (60 percent) to view a college degree as essential. But in a striking measure of disenchantment, the pattern flipped among whites: Those with a college degree (44 percent) were slightly less likely than those without one (49 percent) to view college as crucial. (That difference does fall within the survey's margin of error.) John Lee, a retired white financial consultant in Decatur, Ga., persevered through his postsecondary education long enough to earn an M.B.A, but he admits to ambivalence about its value. "It was certainly a ticket into professional employment, and I'd like to say I used a lot of it, but I'm not really sure that's true," he said. As for today's young people, he says, they would "probably" be better off with a four-year degree, "but it's not absolutely necessary."