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Latinos, Blacks Strongest Supporters for Increasing College Attainment, Poll Finds

When asked about the value of getting a college degree or professional certificate, public opinion polls show Americans overwhelmingly believe it is important. Now, a new poll shows even deeper support for higher education among Latinos and blacks.

Survey results released April 16 by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation found 96 percent of Americans believe in the importance of education beyond high school. Yet there is an "interesting disconnect" as just 40 percent of adults hold a college degree of some kind and enrollment in higher education dropped by nearly 600,000 last year, said Brandon Busteed, executive director of education for Gallup.

The poll revealed barriers in attitude and cost. About 61 percent of Americans feel higher education is available to anyone who needs it, down from 67 percent in the previous year's survey on the issue. And just 21 percent of those surveyed said college was affordable.

Interestingly, Gallup found that Hispanics and blacks are more likely than whites to say that having a college education leads to a better quality of life and agree that more Americans should earn a degree. The new Gallup results are based on 1,533 telephone interviews with adults conducted in late 2014.

While 56 percent of whites say it is very important to increase the proportion of Americans with some form of a college degree, 72 percent of Hispanics and 73 percent of blacks feel the same way, Gallup found. Overall, 61 percent of respondents said boosting college completion was important in this year's survey, compared to 51 percent last year.

Projecting the future demand for higher education, Latinos were most supportive of the idea that having a postsecondary degree to get a good job will be more important in the future (78 percent), followed by blacks (74 percent) and whites (67 percent).

In the four years that Gallup and Lumina have conducted their survey on public opinion and higher education, this was the first time the sample was expanded to capture attitudes by racial and ethnic groups. To find that Latinos—the fastest growing demographic group—have the highest college aspirations is significant, Busteed said at a recent event in Washington to discuss the new study. "Based on those strong aspirations, hopefully we can improve attainment," he said.

The percentage of Hispanics enrolled in postsecondary programs is expected to increase by 46 percent between 2009 and 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

A report released by Lumina last month showed that college completion rates among among U.S. residents is 40 percent, but just 28 percent for African Americans and 20 percent for Hispanics.

While the public supports higher education, just 13 percent in this new Gallup poll believe that college graduates are well-prepared for success, compared to 14 percent last year and 17 percent two years earlier. "We are sliding in our belief that college graduates are prepared for the workforce," said Busteed. 

Students need to learn skills for jobs that are in demand and community colleges should be held accountable for providing that, said Cheryl Hyman, the chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, during a panel discussion at the Gallup event. "There is a huge information gap," she said. "Yes, Americans think education is important, but they don't know the revalence of their education and the opportunities they should seek out."

Chicago has brought in employers to redesign programs, align curriculum with seven industry areas, and put students on structured pathways so they won't wander through the system, said Hyman. "If it's not relevant, we don't offer it," she said.

Previous polling by Gallup has shown wide gaps in the ways that employers and college administrators view the readiness of graduates for careers.

As open-door institutions, community colleges need to do all they can to support students and work with K-12, rather than placing blame on the system for not preparing students, said Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, while speaking on the panel. "We need to be part of the solution and it starts well before high school," he said. In addition to specific skills, graduates need to know how to think critically and problem solve, he added.

"We have failed to understand the nature of the 21st century environment and knowledge economy," he said. "Our industry is very slow in reacting...We know what it takes to make students successful, we have to have the courage to do what is necessary."

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