University essential, parents believe

May 19, 2000

A university degree has taken on unprecedented importance for Americans, according to the most extensive public opinion survey ever conducted about views on higher education in the United States, writes Jon Marcus.

Two-thirds of parents said they believe a university education is "absolutely necessary" for their children, reports the survey, which was conducted by the nonpartisan research organisation Public Agenda.

Groups with the lowest rates of college participation - namely, blacks and Hispanics, who represent 20 per cent and 30 per cent respectively of American university enrolment - placed the highest value on further education.

Sixty-five per cent of Hispanic and 47 per cent of black parents said a college education is the single factor a young person most needs to succeed, compared with 33 per cent of white parents.

"We are the underdog already, so if you don't have a college education, it is another thing against you," one black respondent told researchers.

The study's authors said this finding contradicts a stereotype that low levels of preparation for college can be traced to parents who do not value higher education enough.

The report's author, John Immerwahr, vice-president for academic affairs at Villanova University, Pennsylvania, said the results marked "a dramatic shift in Americans' views about higher education".

Only seven years ago, a majority of Americans surveyed said they thought too many people were going to college. Now, nearly 90 per cent believe a university education is as important as secondary school once was, and three out of four think there cannot be too many people with education and training beyond secondary school.

Dr Immerwahr and other experts cited the rapid move to a high-technology economy for the changes in opinion.

But the news was not all good for universities. More than two-thirds of parents with children in high school are at least "somewhat worried" about how to pay for college for their children, and nearly two-thirds strongly agreed that colleges should be doing a "much better job" of keeping down their costs.

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