Go to College? Get a Job? How Young African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Whites Make Decisions About What to Do After

Financial pressures force most college-bound African Americans and Hispanics to compromise on college choice. Inspiration from adults, particularly parents, crucial to college decisions. Broad belief in the value of a college degree.


New York City -- A new national survey of young adults age 18 to 25 from the nonprofit, nonpartisan opinion research organization Public Agenda finds that the vast majority of today's young adults -- be they African American, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American or white -- strongly believe in the value of higher education. Most of the young adults surveyed in Life After High School: Young People Talk about Their Hopes and Prospects report that their parents inspired the goal of going to college and most had a teacher in high school who took a strong personal interest in them and encouraged them to go on to college.

But the study raises serious questions about the shortage of high school counselors and the economic pressures and trade-offs many young adults face, especially those from minority backgrounds. It also portrays the uncertain, hit-or-miss career path experienced by many young people who enter the work force without a 2-year or 4-year college or technical degree.

Money plays a big role in decisions about where -- or whether -- to go to college. About half of young people who don't continue their education after high school cite lack of money, the wish to earn money or having other responsibilities as reasons why they don't go. Life After High School also shows that while money is not a factor in college selection for most young white Americans (60%), it is for most young African Americans and Hispanics. Six in 10 of both groups say that they would have attended a different college if money was not an issue. About half (51%) of young Asian Americans say this as well.

Analysis, complete survey questions and top line data for this research are available at:

The survey raises troubling concerns about the prospects for young workers without college degrees. Compared to those who have a 2- or 4-year degree, these less-educated workers fell into their jobs more by chance than by choice and far fewer think of their job as a career. Young people with no degree are substantially less likely than those who have a degree to say their parents urged them to go to college.

The study was funded by The College Board, GE Foundation, The George Gund Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

According to Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden, Life After High School shows that most young people have absorbed the 'go to college, get more education' message. We've been successful in inspiring a goal. Whether they're getting the nuts-and-bolts, real-life help and guidance they need to reach that goal, to actually succeed in graduating from college, is another matter.

High Hopes

Across racial and ethnic lines, young Americans see going to college as a positive thing to do. Three in four (74%) young adults agree that college helps prepare you for the real world. Seventy-seven percent of African Americans, 81% of Hispanics, 85% of Asian Americans and 81% of whites said that people respect you more when they know you've graduated from college.

These findings counter the belief of some that large numbers of minority youth denigrate academic success. Only 7% of young African Americans and 3% of young Hispanics surveyed say that graduating from college is something their circle of friends looks down on.

But the survey confirms what national data show -- going to college is still not commonplace for most African Americans and Hispanics. The African Americans and Hispanics (8% each) surveyed were less likely to have earned a bachelor's degree than their Asian American (25%) and white (16%) peers.

Substantial numbers believe their high school teachers and classes should have done a lot more to prepare them for college level work (51% African American, 48% Hispanic, 44% Asian American and 39% white). But they also hold themselves accountable for poor preparation. Sixty-nine percent of African Americans, 75% of Hispanics, 70% of Asian Americans and 65% of whites admit that they themselves could have paid a lot more attention and worked harder in high school.

Not Enough Counselors, Not Enough Time

Parents seem to be prime movers for getting kids to go to college. About 6 in 10 said that their parents strongly expected them to go to college (61% of African Americans, 59% of Hispanics, 86% of Asian Americans and 63% of whites). Majorities of all groups point to a parent as the one person who has been the most important influence on their decisions on issues like work and college.

In terms of inspiration, teachers, coaches and other adult mentors also come in for some high marks. Seventy-four percent of African Americans, 69% of Hispanics, 63% of Asian Americans and 66% of whites said they had a high school teacher who took a personal interest in them and encouraged them to go to college. Similar majorities said they had a teacher or coach who really inspired them to do their best.

As for high school counselors, the young people across all demographic groups surveyed indicated that counseling resources were stretched thin, with 53% saying there were not enough counselors in their high school. About half (52%) said their school counselors usually made an effort to get to know them, while 47% said they usually felt like just another face in the crowd.

Money - And Lack Thereof

Life After High School found clear differences between the views of African Americans and Hispanics on one hand and Asian Americans and whites on the other regarding the ability to pay for higher education. Most African Americans (54%) and Hispanics (53%) believe that lack of money keeps people who should be in college from going. In contrast, most Asian Americans (54%) and whites (59%) believe the vast majority of qualified people who want to go to college can find a way to pay for it.

The study also found strong evidence that because of money concerns, certain minority groups are more likely to compromise on the college they choose. Nearly 6 in 10 African Americans (59%) and Hispanics (58%) say they would have chosen a different school were it not for money worries. Fifty-one percent of Asians said they would have gone to a different school if money were not an issue. Most whites (60%) said they did not have to make this compromise.

Adrift Without a Degree

Almost 9 in 10 (89%) agreed that college is not for everyone, and a solid majority (57%) agreed that earning money instead of sitting in a classroom can be an advantage.But Life After High School raises serious questions about the future of young adults with no college degree. Compared to those with either a 2- or 4-year degree, this group is less happy with their work situation and less focused on planning a future. Just 1 in 5 of these less-educated young adults said they love their job, compared with 31% of those with degrees. 7 in 10 with limited education said they are in their current job more by chance than by design, compared to 56% of young workers with degrees.Lack of parental encouragement seems to play a big role. By a 30-point margin, young workers with less education are less likely than the more educated to say their parents strongly expected them to go to college (32% vs. 67%). By a 22-point margin they are less likely to point to a parent as their number one source of guidance (47% vs. 69%).

Those without college degrees are more likely to say they could have worked harder in school (78% of the less educated said this compared to 62% with degrees). While conventional wisdom may hold that those without college degrees didn't have mentors in high school, majorities said they did, in fact, have a high school teacher or coach who took an interest and inspired them.

A Different Demographic Fault Line: Men and Women

This research suggests that young women have internalized the worth of post-secondary education more than young men have. Young men are more likely to say they didn't attend or complete college because they had enough of school (32% vs. 22% of young women), and were more likely to say they didn't complete additional education because they preferred to work and make money (56% vs. 42%). In contrast, 7 in 10 (69%) young women who went to college said they really enjoy being in school, whereas a significantly smaller majority of young men (58%) who went to college said the same thing.

Summary: Hopes, Inspiration and Trade-offs

Perhaps the most heartening message from Life After High School is that the vast majority of today's young adults -- across racial and ethnic lines -- believe that higher education is a way to earn both society's respect and insure the career advancement and financial security they yearn for.

According to the young adults themselves, parents are the most important adults who inspire them to get a higher education. Pointedly, those young people who don't continue on after high school are much less likely to say their parents expected them to go to college or that their parents are their most important source of guidance.

The findings indicate that African American and Hispanic young people are far more likely than their white peers to say they had to compromise on their choice of college due to financial constraints.

Finally, the report states few would deny that many individuals shape constructive, honorable and satisfying lives without higher education, and there is a useful debate about whether all young people need or will even tolerate more schooling after high school. Even so, it is worth asking how comfortable we are with the haphazard, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may career path so many young people who aren't in college seem to be pursuing.

Methodology The findings in Life After High School: Young People Talk about Their Hopes and Prospects are based on telephone interviews with a national random sample of 1,000 young adults aged 18 to 25. Interviews were also conducted with targeted samples of Asian American, African American and Hispanic young adults to ensure sample sizes of 200 in each of these groups. The survey was preceded by five focus groups.

Full text of this study (including the full questionnaire and responses) is available free of charge in PDF format at You can order printed versions of the executive summary for $5 each by calling Public Agenda at (212) 686-6610. Quantity discounts are available.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public's voice into crucial policy debates. Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public's views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues.

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