Americans View Higher Education as Key to American Dream

Black and Hispanic Parents Value Higher Education the Most


San Jose and New York -- In today's high-tech economy, Americans believe that a college education has replaced a high school diploma as the gateway to the middle class, according to the most extensive public opinion survey ever conducted about Americans' views on higher education.

The survey, prepared by Public Agenda and released nationwide by several independent nonprofit organizations, finds that a towering 87% of Americans believe that a college education has become as important as a high school diploma used to be. And three out of four Americans (76%) think that there cannot be too many people with education and training beyond high school.

This is a dramatic shift in Americans' views about higher education, said John Immerwahr, author of the report. Back in 1993, a majority of Americans thought that too many people were going to college.

Parents of high school students, meanwhile, are just as resolute when talking about education and training for their own children. Almost two-thirds (62%) of those surveyed believe that a college education is absolutely necessary for their children.

American views about the importance of higher education have now coalesced, said Patrick Callan, President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an independent organization working to improve higher education policy. This is an important change in attitudes.

The value placed on a college education, however, is highest among those who have the lowest rates of college participation: African American and Hispanic parents are more likely to emphasize higher education than either white parents or the population as a whole.

When asked to choose a single factor that a young person most needs to succeed in the world today, 65% of Hispanic parents and 47% of African American parents select a college education. In contrast, only 33% of white parents choose a college education as the top choice though this percentage still outranks the other choices, such as knowing how to get along with people and a good work ethic.

This finding shatters a persistent stereotype throughout much of America-that low levels of preparation for college can be traced to parents who don't value higher education enough.

In contrast, participation rates among these three groups as measured by the percentage of 18 to 24 year olds enrolled in higher education are lowest among Hispanics (20%), followed by African Americans (30%). Whites have almost double the participation rate (37%) as Hispanics.

Providing people with opportunities for higher education is the way American society promotes social and economic mobility, said Deborah Wadsworth, President of Public Agenda. For now, most Americans are generally satisfied with the availability of higher education. However, tougher economic times or changes that violate the public's values might cloud this rosy outlook.

College Costs

The survey also finds that Americans have a clear sense of who has the most difficulty paying for college: almost half (46%) of Americans say that students from low-income families have less opportunity for college than other groups. In contrast, only 16% of Americans say that students from middle-class families have less opportunity than other groups.

The report finds that the vast majority of high school parents (69%) who expect their children to go to college are at least somewhat worried about paying for tuition and other expenses. At the same time, 93% of parents believe they will find a way to pay the price.

Although Americans are willing to make sacrifices to send their children to college, they want colleges and universities to do a better job of keeping tuition low without cutting quality. Nearly two-thirds of Americans strongly agree that colleges should be doing a much better job of keeping down their costs.

These findings are drawn from a broad study of public attitudes about higher education, including issues such as college preparation and remediation, priorities for colleges, and the importance of teaching analytical thinking and other life skills.

Great Expectations: How the Public and ParentsWhite, African American and HispanicView Higher Education is based on a telephone survey of 1,015 adults, plus oversamples of white, African American, and Hispanic parents of high-school-age children.

John Immerwahr, author of the report, is a Senior Research Fellow at Public Agenda and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Villanova University.

The report was released today by four independent nonprofit organizations: The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education promotes public policies that enhance Americans' opportunities for education and training beyond high school. Public Agenda regularly reports on public attitudes about major policy issues. The Consortium for Policy Research in Education conducts and publishes research on education issues. The National Center for Postsecondary Improvement identifies and analyzes the challenges facing postsecondary education.

The report is available at and

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