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Valuing a College Education Varies by Ethnicity, Poll Finds

Black and Latino parents, whose children are less likely to get a degree than whites, are found more likely to rank a diploma as the most important ingredient for success in life.


Latino and black parents are far more likely than white parents to rank a college education as the most important ingredient for a youngster's success, according to a new poll.

The finding is at odds with lower college attendance and college completion rates among these minority groups--especially Latinos, who attend college at the lowest rate of any ethnic group.

"Whites take college for granted," said Patrick Callan, president of the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, commenting on the results. "But blacks and Latinos are really passionate about it. The less well they are doing in getting their kids into college, the more passionately they feel."

The nationwide survey of about 1,500 adults, including parents of high school-age youths, found that 65% of Latino parents and 47% of black parents considered college more important than personal skills or a good work ethic in ensuring success in life.

Only 33% of white parents ranked a college education first among these attributes.

In focus groups after the telephone survey, researchers said blacks and Latinos frequently explained their interest in higher education as a way to counter historic disadvantages.

"We are the underdog already," said one black woman quoted in the study, "so if you don't have a college education, it is another thing that is against you."

Blacks and Latinos have vastly increased their rates of enrolling in higher education in recent decades. But they still lag behind whites. The study cites 1998 federal statistics showing that 37% of whites ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college, compared with 30% of African Americans and 20% of Latinos.

Callan said more study needs to be done to understand the gap between aspirations and achievement.

However, he said, the findings show that parental disinterest is not the culprit. "That stereotype is shattered," he said.

Nor does the cost of college fully explain the gap, said John Immervahr, senior research fellow for Public Agenda, which conducted the study for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Although Latinos were somewhat more worried than other groups about paying for college, they agreed with the vast majority of parents that they could afford it somehow.

Unequal high school preparation may be a greater problem, said Alfredo G. De Los Santos Jr., an education research professor at Arizona State University.

"A significant number of Hispanic and African American kids go to urban school districts where resources are less than for kids who go to suburban districts," he said. "Just look at [Advanced Placement] courses; suburban high schools offer a full range of them. Urban school districts don't offer them at all."

The result, he added, is considerable frustration in minority communities as college dreams are thwarted.

Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based fellow at the New America Foundation, said the poll reflects changing ambitions among historically excluded groups--and especially among Latino immigrants and their children, whose ambitions have changed with assimilation. "I think what's happening here is expectations are rising," he said.

Across all ethnic groups, the poll found, people are increasingly likely to place a high value on a college education, with 62% of parents calling it "absolutely necessary" for their children.

More than three out of four respondents--76%--said the nation could never have too many college graduates. That's a change from surveys in the recessionary years of the early 1990s, in which respondents were more likely to express concern about a glut of college graduates, Callan said.

"Now there is a general belief that you can't get into the economy without a degree," Callan said. "In the '90s people realized this is for real--that these jobs that allowed one to work in a factory, have a middle-class life and buy a house really have disappeared."

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