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A national survey of parents finds that many prefer their children pursue alternatives to a traditional degree, such as vocational training that doesn’t take place at a college, or starting a business. Credit: Katie Cotterill

Fewer American parents are dreaming of sending their kids off to a four-year college immediately after they graduate from high school, signaling both a deepening political divide over the value of higher education and a shift in public sentiment toward career training.

A Gallup survey, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic foundation, and released April 7, 2021, found that 46 percent of parents said they would prefer not to send their children to a four-year college after high school, even if there were no obstacles, financial or otherwise. Only a slim majority of parents — 54 percent — still prefer a four-year college for their children. (The Carnegie Corporation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

“We do see in the United States that parents are becoming slightly less likely to say a college degree is very important,” said Gallup’s Zach Hrynowski, an education research consultant who wrote the report

Click image to enlarge
Source: Chart 3 on p. 14 of Family Values: Building Pathways from Learning to Meaningful Work, Carnegie Corporation of New York and Gallup, April 2021.

Previous polls of U.S. adults have also detected waning support for higher education, despite politicians’ and college advocates’ urging that a four-year degree is one of the best paths to a middle-class life in a fast-changing, high-tech economy. This national poll of almost 3,000 adults with children between the ages of 11 to 25 indicates that nearly half of Americans feel skeptical of the benefits of college for their own children. Fueling the skepticism are legitimate gripes about rising tuition, disappointing graduation rates at many colleges and poor job prospects for some fields of study.

In lieu of a four-year college, 16 percent of parents said they were interested in non-college vocational training and 22 percent said they preferred to see their children consider an array of other options, including starting a business, joining the military, getting a job or doing community service. Only 8 percent of parents said they would prefer a two-year community college, where more than a third of U.S. college students are enrolled and which also offer many vocational degrees and programs.

Favorable sentiment toward college remains high among Black parents;  67 percent of Black families wish their high school graduate would attend a four-year college. For white and Hispanic parents, support for a four-year degree was 51 and 56 percent, respectively.

Political party affiliation proved to be the strongest distinguishing factor. Seventy percent of Democrats prefer a four-year degree, compared to 46 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of independents. 

Parents with a bachelor’s degree were more likely to want their children to follow in their footsteps. But surprisingly, one third of parents who went to college themselves did not wish their children to do the same. Geography mattered too. Suburban families were most likely to support a college education while rural and urban families were less supportive.

Family income was not a determining factor. When comparing families with the same political affiliation, education and geographical setting, higher income families didn’t prefer college more than low-income families.

The shift in public sentiment away from a college education is occurring despite wage data showing that a bachelor’s degree continues to be the best long-term educational investment. In an analysis of 2019 data by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the 40-year return on investment for a four-year college degree added up to $864,000 on average in today’s dollars, compared to $723,000 for a two-year degree and $577,000 for a shorter training certificate. 

However, over the short-term, both the two-year associate’s degree and the training certificate are better bets. Over a decade, the return on investment for a two-year degree was $141,000, followed by a certificate at $120,000 and a four-year degree at $71,000. The bachelor’s pays off but it takes a lot longer.

“There is a constant buzz to the public which says you can become a plumber and do just as well as somebody who gets a bachelor’s degree,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown center. “And there is some truth to that.”

Carnevale says the competing messages between advocates who would like to see everyone go to college, often referred to as “college for all,” and those who would like other workforce training options for some Americans have been “confusing” to the general public. This poll is a sign, he said, that “training is on the ascendancy.”

Indeed, the Carnegie foundation’s press release accompanying the poll results emphasized that the “nation’s longstanding focus on making college degrees accessible to all has had the unintended consequence of leaving behind those students who are either unable or uninterested in pursuing a traditional college degree.” The foundation called for more ways to expose young people “to the world of work before graduating from high school” and more “career-related learning opportunities” afterwards, workforce training areas that the foundation supports

The poll, conducted in November and December 2020, immediately following President Joe Biden’s election, was released as new workforce training proposals are moving in Congress. One proposal would allow federal Pell grants, more than $6,000 in annual college aid for low-income Americans, to be used for short-term vocational certificates. It is generally restricted to two- and four-year college degree programs. 

This story about parents and college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletters.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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  1. For some, entry to a US four year degree is the right academic and social move from high school, and affordable. For many, whose ideas about a life plan are sketchy, pinning their future to a four year college, especially out of state or private without knowing what degree specialisation they want is a ticket to penury. So many drop out with nebulous life skills and a lot of debt and no degree. I coached my students to consider a two year local community college as a way of keeping their costs low while they explored interests and subjects and proved their ability to stay the course. Moving on to years three and four at a four-year college provides an onward path if it is warranted.
    It’s different in Europe, where costs are far less (in UK, fees $40,000 plus living expenses for a bachelor’s degree).

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