Only on a question about mounting student debt did most respondents resist public intervention. Asked to identify the best way to reduce debt levels, a solid 56 percent said, "Colleges and universities should do more to hold down costs, even if that means larger classes, less money for sports, and fewer activities for students." Just 31 percent said, "The government should provide students more financial assistance, even if that means higher federal spending."
Still, the clear majority consensus that emerged on each of these questions masked pointed differences between whites, and sometimes Asian-Americans, on the one hand, and African-Americans and Hispanics on the other.
African-Americans (76 percent), Hispanics (68 percent), and Asian-Americans (63 percent) were all much more likely than whites (48 percent) to believe the economy would benefit from meeting Obama's goal of increasing by half the number of young workers with postsecondary degrees. And although most college-educated whites expected benefits, those without degrees split almost exactly evenly between those who thought such an increase would help or hurt the economy. Whites over 50 were cooler to the idea than younger whites. Likewise, only 44 percent of Republicans, compared with 73 percent of Democrats, thought more college graduates would help the economy.
Similar divides coursed through the question testing tax cuts against education spending. Fully 72 percent of African-Americans, 67 percent of Hispanics, and 57 percent of Asians said more education spending was a better bet for their communities. But whites split closely between education (50 percent) and tax cuts (45 percent). Once again, noncollege and older whites tilted more toward tax cuts than their college-educated and younger counterparts. Three-fourths of Democrats picked education; almost three-fifths of Republicans preferred tax cuts.
Debt separated the groups even more starkly. While 62 percent of whites and 53 percent of Asians said the proper response was for colleges to cut back, even if that reduced services for students, only 42 percent of Hispanics and African-Americans agreed; about half in those two groups said the answer was for government to provide students with more financial assistance.
By contrast, just 16 percent of whites older than 50 and 13 percent of Republicans said more government aid was the answer. As much as any other question in the poll, those answers captured the consistent divide in public opinion between minorities, who see government activism as key to expanding opportunity for themselves and their children, and the skepticism in much of the white community (especially older and blue-collar whites) about the value of those investments.
Only the question of funding public higher education generated a truly broad consensus. Majorities of all four major racial and ethnic groups tested — as well as most older and younger whites, most college and noncollege whites, most parents and nonparents, and most Republicans and Democrats — all rejected the trend of shifting more cost to parents. Beverly Davis, a white student and assistant store manager in Morristown, Tenn., captured the common thread through many of the interviews: "The cost of college is making a lot of people decide they don't want to go "¦ because they don't want to pay for student loans," she said. "It should be way more affordable and give people the opportunity to accomplish their dreams."