Are College Degrees Inherited?

Parents’ experiences with education strongly influence what their children do after high school.

Nothing is more American than the belief in second chances. But the latest College Board/National JournalNext America Poll suggests that the choices young people make as they complete high school echo with surprising power throughout their lives.

Underscoring the stakes of the next step teenagers take after completing high school, the poll found that those who advanced immediately to some form of postsecondary education—either to a two- or four-year college or to vocational training—were more than three times as likely to report ever having obtained a degree than those who moved from high school straight into the workforce. Even counting those who are still seeking but haven't yet obtained a postsecondary credential, the ratio remains 3-to-1.

The survey also found that fears about the economic prospects of recent college graduates continue to erode faith in the general value of higher education. Just 49 percent of those polled said they believed "young people in the United States today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful," while 48 percent said they did not. "It's become so expensive, it's sort of priced itself out," said Tammy Hasson, a retired home-health aide from Paso Robles, Calif., who responded to the poll.

Yet, the survey found that Americans make a very different judgment about the value of advanced education and training in their own lives. In striking contrast, 90 percent of those who pursued higher education immediately after high school said they would do so again—while a majority of those who moved from high school directly into the workforce said that if they could reconsider their choice today, they would instead seek more education. "I'm finding it a little harder," said Stephanie Harland, from Rowlett, Texas, who is returning to community college this summer, two decades after she finished high school and went to work as a medical aide. Harland, who is currently a homemaker, said, "I never had a hard time getting a job. I was able to get jobs and promotions on experience. Now they want you to have a degree." The survey also powerfully documents how much the decisions young people make immediately after high school are shaped by the attitudes and experiences of their parents. Those raised by parents with college degrees were vastly more likely than those raised by parents without degrees to say that their family encouraged them to attend college. Those from families with college experience were also much more likely to report that they themselves started college directly after finishing high school, and that they ultimately obtained a postsecondary degree.

Each of those findings, echoed by other academic studies, shows how a higher-education system traditionally seen as equalizing opportunity now often has the effect of stratifying it. Confounding America's self-image as a land of unique mobility, studies have found that young people in the United States are less likely than young people in any other advanced nation to obtain more education than their parents. "You've got a system that is promoting the intergenerational transmission of class," says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The Working Life

The latest College Board/National Journal Next America Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,271 adults on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish, from March 18-26. The survey included oversamples of 255 African-Americans, 273 Hispanics, and 107 Asian-Americans that allow for more detailed analysis of those groups. It 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; 7.2 percentage points for Hispanics; and 13.3 percentage points for Asians. The survey is one component of National Journal's Next America project, which explores how growing diversity is changing the national agenda.

The new survey explores the educational and career choices Americans have made, the factors that influenced their decisions, and the obstacles they have faced.

Within each of the four racial groups, about two-thirds of adults said they believed their high school education prepared them "to do college work successfully." But, except for Asian-Americans, much smaller percentages in each group said they actually moved immediately into higher education when they completed high school.

African-Americans (at 16 percent), whites (13 percent), and Hispanics (13 percent) proceeded from high school to community college in similar proportions. But whites (29 percent) and blacks (25 percent) were much more likely than Hispanics (just 17 percent) to transition directly to a four-year college. And the percentage of Asians who went straight to college dwarfed the shares of all other groups: Fully 60 percent of them said they advanced directly from high school to a four-year college (with an additional 4 percent picking a community college).

A thinner, single-digit slice of each group said they pursued vocational education. Combined with college attendance, that meant almost exactly half of whites and blacks, about two-fifths of Hispanics, and two-thirds of Asians sought further training after high school. Age also shaped the responses: About three-fifths of adults younger than 30 said they pursued some additional training after high school. Only about half as many seniors said the same.

In each group, the remainder moved directly from high school into the workforce or the military. Just under two-fifths of whites, blacks, and Hispanics, and slightly fewer than three in 10 Asians, said they started working directly after high school; Hispanics (at 13 percent) were much more likely than any other group to say they entered the military. (Whites were next, at 6 percent.)

Financial considerations dominated the decisions for those who transitioned from high school into the workforce or the military, the survey found. Asked why they made that choice, 59 percent said it was because they could "not afford to pay for education beyond high school." That reason was chosen more often any of nine other options offered. The next-most-common reasons cited for skipping higher education were eagerness to begin a career (53 percent) and the need "to help support your family" (46 percent). Smaller percentages cited a desire not to take out student loans (35 percent); not receiving much information about college from parents or counselors (34 percent); not believing college was worth the cost (31 percent); and not liking school (30 percent).

With only a few exceptions, these answers varied strikingly little from one group to another. (Not enough Asian-Americans moved directly into the workforce to provide a statistically valid sample on this question.) African-Americans were almost twice as likely as whites to say they didn't feel academically prepared for higher education. And both African-Africans (54 percent) and Hispanics (a striking 66 percent) who moved directly into the workforce were far more likely than whites (just 39 percent) to say they did so because they needed to help support their family.

Those who moved directly from school to work reported a generally smooth transition. Roughly three-fourths of those who chose that route described their transition into the workforce as either very (49 percent) or somewhat (28 percent) easy.

On a more detailed question about initial experiences, 90 percent of these workers said they felt confident in their ability to do the job well, and a solid three-fifths agreed they "were able to get a good start on living the life [they] wanted to lead." Only about one in five said they "were not disciplined enough in [their] work performance." But about two-fifths said they had trouble paying their bills when they set out. And, in the clearest measure of unease with the decision, almost exactly half of them agreed that "the well-paying jobs you wanted required skills and training you did not have."

A separate question, worded slightly differently, produced a more positive response about those opportunities: Almost four-fifths of those who joined the workforce or military said they were able to develop enough skills to move into better-paying jobs. But exactly one-third of people who initially skipped higher education said they reconsidered and later sought a degree (with 22 percent pursuing a two-year credential and 11 percent a four-year degree). Of those who went back to school, though, only about three-fifths said they have completed a degree.

Taken together, that means only about one-fifth of those who joined the workforce or military immediately after high school report that they later obtained either a two- or four-year degree. A modest additional 6 percent say they are still seeking a degree.

While many of those who skipped college found successful careers, these results underscore the consequences of the initial choices young people make as they complete high school. So does the response to a summary question asking people who directly entered the workforce or the military after high school whether they would make the same choice again. In this group, 26 percent said they would still get a job, and 18 percent said they would still choose the military. But a 54 percent majority said they would seek more education: a four-year degree (26 percent), a two-year degree (18 percent), or vocational training (10 percent).

Interviews with respondents who moved directly from high school into the workforce illuminated those sentiments. Bryan Henderson, a 24-year-old ship-repair employee in Virginia Beach, Va., feels that his lack of a degree is somewhat limiting his ability to advance. But, mostly, he doesn't second-guess his decision. When he looks at some friends with four-year degrees, he says, "Now they are working fast-food." Tammy Hasson, likewise, said she enjoyed her earlier career as a home-health aide and felt no need for a degree. Her husband, she added, "loves" his job as a handyman on a farm and "makes decent money."

By contrast, Sally Rivera, 60, a retired office administrator, says that while she doesn't believe a four-year degree "is going to get you anything today," she still wishes she had obtained one years ago. "Had I gone to college, I would have loved to be a librarian," she said. And Harland, the suburban Dallas homemaker, feels her decision to start working after high school has exposed her to a slow-motion economic squeeze: From one side she faces rising costs for college, from the other diminishing opportunities for those without a degree. "You can't make money without a degree," the 38-year-old said. "The jobs you get are very, very low."

Whites divided almost evenly on whether, if given another chance, they would enter the workforce immediately or seek more education. But two-thirds of African-Americans, and nearly three-fourth of Hispanics who chose work over further education said that if they had to do it again, they would seek more education or training. Those numbers highlight the challenge in helping young people from those groups to accurately measure the costs and benefits of their choices—particularly in communities with fewer role models who embody the benefits advanced education can provide.

The College Track

The survey spotlights the reinforcing confluence of considerations that drive the young people who seek more training after high school. Just under half of the adults surveyed moved from high school into a four-year or two-year college or vocational education, and when they were asked why they did so, three factors dominated. The biggest was economic opportunity: 87 percent of them said they "considered more education necessary to obtain a well-paying job." Running step-for-step was personal fulfillment: 85 percent said they "wanted to learn new things." Close behind were family expectations: 68 percent said their family "always expected you to go." Fewer said they "wanted more time to consider what career to pursue" (54 percent); they "weren't ready to enter the workforce full time" (39 percent); or the economy "was too weak … to find a job" (17 percent). Though these questions occasionally reflected differences among the groups, the bigger trend was convergence: For instance, at least 83 percent of each of the four groups said they considered education key to better-paying jobs, and at least 84 percent said they wanted to learn new things.

Further probing found telling differences in the motivations of those who chose the different forms of postsecondary education. Those who enrolled in four-year colleges after high school said they did so because they thought it would provide them "more opportunities, including the option to attend graduate school" (80 percent); they thought it "would lead to a better-paying job" (78 percent); they considered it more prestigious (74 percent); or their "parents or high school counselors advised [them] to do it" (69 percent).

For those who chose two-year schools, the big reasons were that "it cost less" (a resounding 75 percent) or that they considered it "easier to balance other obligations like family or work" (63 percent). For those who entered vocational training, cost (75 percent) and balancing other obligations (53 percent) were also big reasons—but so were the belief that it offered more job-relevant training (67 percent) and doubt that they could academically handle a two- or four-year school (47 percent).

Compared with those who directly entered the workforce or the military after high school, those who sought more education or training actually reported a slightly rockier transition. Just 37 percent of those who pursued additional education said their transition was very easy (compared with 49 percent of those who did not). But on the more detailed question, those moving from high school into a two- or four-year college reported relatively few obstacles. Fewer than one in four said they found themselves academically unprepared for college work. Only about one in eight said family obligations interfered or that they spent too much time in remedial courses. About one-third in each case said they didn't "receive enough guidance or direction from the college," didn't find course topics "interesting or relevant," or found it difficult to be on their own for the first time.

Racial differences emerged on some of these fronts. Hispanics (35 percent) were more likely than whites or blacks (around one-fourth in each case) to describe themselves as academically unprepared. Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians were all at least twice as likely as whites to say they spent too much time in remedial courses—or that they faced complicating family obligations.

But the biggest overall problems cited by those who moved directly into college were difficulty in managing their time (47 percent overall) and financial pressures (43 percent overall). At least two-fifths of all four groups reported financial pressure while at school; roughly half of those in each group reported difficulty managing their time, except for Hispanics, who expressed less concern.

These results capture the intensifying economic pressure on college students as costs and debts rise. Just 28 percent of those respondents 50 and older who attended college directly after high school reported that they faced financial worries. Among those younger than 30 who made that same choice, almost exactly twice as many reported such strains.

Of those who pursued a two- or four-year degree or vocational education immediately after high school, 63 percent reported completing their degree, while 37 percent said they did not. Of those who didn't finish their degree, 40 percent said they are still trying.

Taken together, these results indicate that nearly four in five of those who sought more training immediately after high school either obtained a postsecondary degree or are still seeking it. The comparable number for those who entered the workforce or military immediately after high school is only about one in four.

Whether they finished or not, those who sought further education and training after high school expressed much more satisfaction with their decision than those who moved directly into the workforce or military. Nine in 10 of those who pursued more education said they would make the choice again, with 63 percent saying they would seek a four-year degree, 21 percent saying they would pursue a two-year degree, and 6 percent saying they would opt for vocational education. Just 3 percent said that if they could do it again, they would start working immediately after high school, and only 5 percent said they would instead enter the military. Even 87 percent of those who pursued but did not obtain a degree after high school said they would start the climb again.

Andrew Cheek, an engineer who recently graduated from the University of North Carolina (Charlotte), is among those comfortable with his choice to attend college. While he sees some friends without degrees who are getting ahead and views college as "so expensive," he also considers it indispensable. "My company wouldn't have even contacted me for an interview unless I had a four-year degree," he said. "Where I am now is better than where I would be if I didn't go to college."

These personal assessments provide a bookend and perspective for the continued decline in the percentage of adults who say they believe that young people need a college degree to succeed. Although college graduates enjoy much lower unemployment rates and much higher lifetime earnings than those without degrees, the difficulty many young graduates have been experiencing is clearly taking a toll on higher education's brand image. The 49 percent in the survey who said young people need a four-year degree to succeed continues a steady decline from the 61 percent who said so in the fall 2012 Next America Poll and the 52 percent who concurred last October.

In the latest poll, while nearly three-fifths of both African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and exactly two-thirds of Hispanics, still said success demands a degree, only 45 percent of whites agreed. Not only a majority of noncollege-educated whites, but also most of those with degrees, rejected the idea that success requires a degree.

But whatever adults say about the value of higher education in general, those who have obtained it overwhelmingly see it as a positive factor in their own lives—enough so, at least, to repeat the choice if given a clean slate. These personal judgments also reveal something else that reverberates as a central chord throughout the poll: the sweeping power of parental education in shaping the expectations and experiences of young people as they make their own choices.

Well-Worn Paths

One of the most powerful—and disturbing—trends in American higher education is the tendency of educational attainment to reproduce itself, with the children of those who graduated from college much more likely to graduate themselves than those whose parents did not.

The College Board/National JournalPoll vividly captures the dense web of attitudes, expectations, and experiences that contribute to those trends. It asked respondents to indicate the highest level of education obtained by their parents, which allowed National Journal to compare responses based on whether both, one, or neither of a person's parents had obtained at least a four-year college degree. In the poll, 11 percent of respondents said both of their parents held college degrees. Another 14 percent said one parent had a degree, and 55 percent said neither parent had one. Whites and especially Asians were more likely than blacks or Hispanics to report that at least one parent had a degree—and adults under 30 were significantly more likely to do so than those over 50.

A formidable gulf frequently separated people raised in families with and without degrees. The contrast started with assessments of the value of college in general. While 62 percent of those with two college graduates as parents say that young people today need a four-year degree to succeed, only about 46 percent of those from no-degree families agree.

The gap widened with the advice that people received when they finished high school. Fully 80 percent of those raised by two graduates said their parents encouraged them to attend a four-year school; just 29 percent of those raised in no-degree families said they were urged to pursue a four-year degree. (Almost three-fifths of children from one-degree families received such encouragement.)

Cheek was among the children of two-degree parents who felt that steady push. "From an early age, it was important to my parents that I go to college," he said. Like Cheek, Nick Bertram, a sophomore at St. Leo University in Florida who responded to the poll, grew up in an atmosphere in which college was essentially assumed. Bertram said that his mother, a nurse with a college degree, "drilled it into my brain cells since I was born" that he should attend college, too.

Speaking from a parent's perspective, Bobbie North, a mother of three in Lancaster, Pa., who earned her own B.A., is sensitive to the rising cost of college ("it can be rather intimidating") but still says she is "strongly encouraging" her children to seek degrees. "Someone who is a carpenter and has learned a trade can have a very happy, successful life, compared to someone who has gone through college and is unhappy," she says. Nonetheless, she adds, "Just having a diploma is going to give you more options."

In contrast, more than one-third of those raised in families without a degree said they were encouraged to take a job (30 percent) or enter the military (6 percent); fewer than one in 12 of those reared in two-degree families received that advice.

Many parents without degrees are equally determined to direct their children toward college. But in interviews, several of those from families without degrees who chose work over college after high school said they did not feel strong parental pressure to reconsider. "They would have liked for me to go to school, but if I could support myself, they were all good with it," said Henderson. Justin Hemminger, who dropped out of college after initially trying to combine studying with work, is now working in construction in Bakersfield, Calif. He says his parents "had successful careers without going to college" and told him "just make up your own mind. Whatever you choose, we'll support."

That gap persisted in the actual choices people reported. Fully 76 percent of those who had two parents with degrees said they entered a two- or four-year college immediately after high school; that was almost double the 37 percent of those from no-degree families who did so. Exactly half of those from no-degree families went from high school into the workforce or military; just fewer than one in five of those from two-degree families did the same. (Among those from one-degree families, roughly two-thirds sought more education and one-third entered the workforce.) Even among those who initially entered the workforce after high school, those from families with college degrees were more likely than those from families without them to try to obtain a diploma later.

The sample size of those who went directly into the workforce from families with at least one parent holding a degree is too small to permit detailed comparisons with those from no-degree families who made the same choice. But the results suggest that those from no-degree families who directly entered the workforce were more likely to believe that education after high school was not worth the cost, that they did not need further education for the career they wanted, and that their high school education did not prepare them for college.

Carnevale, at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, says these poll findings track the results of studies that follow the economic experience of Americans and their children over long periods of time. "In the old days, say the 1980s, the parental income predicted children's success," he said. "Now the [parental] educational variable appears to be more powerful than income."

Studies, Carnevale said, suggest that parents' educational attainment shapes outcomes for children through a "steady drumbeat" of attitudes and experiences. "It's attitudinal, it's expectations, it's peer effect—the extent to which academic success is respected," Carnevale said. "It's aspirational. It's all this self-identification [and views on] appropriate roles."

The students from no-degree families who went on to college immediately after high school were actually as likely as those from two-degree families to report a very easy transition or to believe they were academically prepared. But a gap remained in their ability to navigate all the way to graduation: Just under three-fifths of those from the no-degree families who started college reported finishing it, compared with roughly 70 percent of those from both two- and one-degree families.

With far fewer people from the no-degree than the one- or two-degree families seeking higher education in the first place, and fewer of those who do succeeding in obtaining a degree, a formidable completion gap emerged in the survey. In the end, 55 percent of all the children from two-degree families reported obtaining a college or postgraduate degree, compared with just 23 percent of the children from no-degree families.

These trends are so powerful that it will likely take much stronger interventions to reverse the tendency of higher education to replicate advantage from generation to generation, Carnevale says. "In order to break this reproduction … you've got to be pretty aggressive," he says. "What's striking about all this as against the old days is, it's more and more a system that doesn't operate on the basis of … bias against working-class kids, or blacks, or Latinos. It really very much is … institutional, which is that the economy, in combination with the educational system, [has created] mechanisms that now are reproducing class advantage. And [higher] education has become the capstone of that dynamic."