The Neglected Majority: What Americans Without A College Degree Think About Higher Education, Part 1

American culture teaches us that postsecondary education is a primary path to getting ahead. In a poll released earlier this month, for instance, Gallup and the Lumina Foundation found that large majorities of Americans agree that a college education leads to a better quality of life. And they’re right: For the minority of Americans who complete a college degree, they earn more; they alsovote more, are healthier, are more likely to marry, and have higher levels of social trust.

That’s great. The truth is, however, our postsecondary system doesn’t even touch large swaths of Americans, especially those who grew up in lower-income families. Most Americans don’t have a college degree. The latest data show that just 40 percent of Americans have finished an associate’s degree or above, while an additional 22 percent attended some college but failed to graduate. Among children born into low-income families in the early 1980s,under 10 percent had earned a four-year degree by age 25.

Those seeking to raise educational attainment rates have focused most of their effort on students who are still in the education pipeline. They’ve made progress, too, identifying the roadblocks that often stand in the way, with college costs, poor high school preparation, and misperceptions about costs and quality as the key culprits.

But what about the mass of Americans who are no longer connected to the education system at all: those who entered the labor market after high school or enrolled in some college but failed to finish? These workers have seen their labor market prospects dim considerably over the past 15 years, and some of them would presumably benefit from further education and training. Do they think so? And do they want more education?

On these questions, existing research is surprisingly silent. It sometimes feels as though we stop caring about peoples’ educational aspirations and attitudes once they graduate from high school. To be sure, researchers and wonks haven’t ignored adultstudents (see the Center on Law and Social Policy’s work, for instance). But focusing on adult students or prospective students excludes the large group who are neither.

To fill this gap, I commissioned a survey of nearly 1,600 Americans between the ages of 25 and 44 who had finished high school but lacked a college degree. Only those with a high school diploma and “some college” were included in the sample. The 20-minute survey was administered over the Internet by GfK North America, which maintains an online panel of survey respondents that covers 97 percent of the American population.

Four big lessons emerged from the results thus far. I’ll discuss two here today and two more tomorrow (for more info, see my paper High Costs, Uncertain Benefits).

1. Americans see higher education as necessary, but too expensive and not well-suited to those with work and family commitments.

When asked whether they agreed with the statement “some education after high school is necessary to get a good job these days,” 84 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

But just 60 percent believed “a college education is worth the cost,” and nearly the same proportion (57 percent) agreed with the statement “today’s colleges are not designed for people with family or work responsibilities.”

Asked to choose the statement that comes closest to their view, just 24 percent chose “with financial aid, anyone can afford to enroll in college if they wish;” three-quarters chose “even with financial aid, college is still too expensive for most to afford.”

Finally, when asked to choose the “top reason” some people do not enroll in college, the number one answer was “it costs too much” (54 percent). Next on the list: “some people are unsure of their career plans” (20 percent).

One interpretation of these results is that American adults face an unenviable choice: invest in something that is increasingly necessary but neither worth the cost nor flexible enough to accommodate their needs.

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