Are college degrees inherited?

Underscoring the stakes of the next step teenagers take after completing high school, the poll found that those who advanced immediately to some form of postsecondary education—either to a two- or four-year college or to vocational training—were more than three times as likely to report ever having obtained a degree than those who moved from high school straight into the workforce. Even counting those who are still seeking but haven’t yet obtained a postsecondary credential, the ratio remains 3-to-1.

The survey also found that fears about the economic prospects of recent college graduates continue to erode faith in the general value of higher education. Just 49 percent of those polled said they believed “young people in the United States today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful,” while 48 percent said they did not. “It’s become so expensive, it’s sort of priced itself out,” said Tammy Hasson, a retired home-health aide from Paso Robles, Calif., who responded to the poll.

Yet, the survey found that Americans make a very different judgment about the value of advanced education and training in their own lives. In striking contrast, 90 percent of those who pursued higher education immediately after high school said they would do so again—while a majority of those who moved from high school directly into the workforce said that if they could reconsider their choice today, they would instead seek more education. “I’m finding it a little harder,” said Stephanie Harland, from Rowlett, Texas, who is returning to community college this summer, two decades after she finished high school and went to work as a medical aide. Harland, who is currently a homemaker, said, “I never had a hard time getting a job. I was able to get jobs and promotions on experience. Now they want you to have a degree.” The survey also powerfully documents how much the decisions young people make immediately after high school are shaped by the attitudes and experiences of their parents. Those raised by parents with college degrees were vastly more likely than those raised by parents without degrees to say that their family encouraged them to attend college. Those from families with college experience were also much more likely to report that they themselves started college directly after finishing high school, and that they ultimately obtained a postsecondary degree.