Is the dream of a four-year college education for every child still the ideal for parents, or are parents shifting their thinking due to the ever-growing cost of college and changing needs of the job market? What is the current parental perception of higher education and the higher education planning process? Those are the questions American Student Assistance® (ASA®) sought to answer through a series of focus groups, small discussions and survey research with parents nationwide.
For 21st-century US parents, the American Dream of their children attending a four-year college, and having the ability upon graduation to pursue a good-paying career, is all too often bumping up against the harsh reality of college affordability. College costs have spiked by almost 260 percent over the past 30 years and financial aid hasn’t kept pace, leaving families scrambling to make up the difference through earnings, savings or borrowing. Concurrently, employers argue that the current higher education system is not adequately preparing students with the skills needed to enter the job market and fill open positions. A family that may once have been willing to take a chance on sending a student to a four-year college is starting to question if such a chance is wise or even necessary to achieve desired career objectives and life goals. Parents often find themselves torn between hopes for their children and practicality.
Our assumption at the outset of this research was that the push for a four-year college degree is largely driven by parents and their desire to have their child fulfill a certain higher education dream, complete with a life changing experience and a career at the end of it. Dreams, more than practicality, can play an outsized role in determining the post-secondary path a student takes and they can crowd out consideration of all the other education possibilities that, in actuality, may better align with the student’s own career interests and goals.
What our research found is that the dream of a four-year higher education is just that for many parents—it is a goal to shoot for, but when the reality of paying for education hits and their child’s academic and career expectations are better understood, parents may be open to other forms of postsecondary education, and many parents have already seen older kids go a different higher education route. However, parents are still very hesitant to guide their children down unknown and less widely accepted avenues to secure a degree or credential, and as a result, the default is still a four-year degree. Parents don’t feel they have the resources to help their kids through the process of choosing an appropriate post-secondary education. And while they want to embrace new ways of thinking about education after high school, lack of support and knowledge about the options available is holding them back from making anything other than the traditional choices available for their kids. Parents see college primarily as a means of gaining skills for future employment, and are less concerned about giving their kids a once in a lifetime experience. In general, parents are still holding on to four-year college as the ultimate higher educational goal. In fact, 72 percent of parents define “college” as only a four-year or bachelor’s degree program, and very few parents’ goals shift as their children approach college age. While the parents’ wish for their children to pursue a four-year college education is strongest when the child is in middle school, only 4 percent of parents desired other education options as the child progresses through high school—when decisions must be made based on their child’s interests and financial considerations. Desire and reality don’t always go hand-in-hand, however. Despite parents’ overriding wish for their children to pursue a four-year college, only half of surveyed parents with children both under the age of 18 and older said their older children had actually attended a four-year school. One quarter attended another type of program, but the remaining quarter skipped higher education altogether.
Overall, parents responded that they are open to the concept of their child attending non-four-year higher education, but despite their tacit acceptance of the concept in an anonymous survey, their actions and current plans for their children don’t seem to support that response. Eighty-three percent of parents think that community college is a cheaper and higher-quality education alternative, but only fourteen percent think a community college is likely to be the path their child will pursue. Eighty-two percent said they were comfortable with the idea of their children pursuing a vocational or technical program, but only 7 percent of parents even classified this type of education as “college,” and only 14 percent (mainly those with a child in a Career and Technical High School) think that this form of higher education is a likely path for their child. There seems to be a lot of open mindedness about different education paths—but it’s not the path MY child will take.
This lack of confidence in a non-four-year education may stem from the fact that only 32 percent of parents agreed strongly with the sentiment, “I have the knowledge I need to guide my child through the application and decision process for post-high school education.” This insecurity is coupled with the fact that their child’s college decisions are deeply personal and reflect their opinion of themselves as a parent. In fact, 61 percent of parents whose children are on the path to some form of higher education would consider themselves parental failures if their children didn’t complete any post-high school education. As a result, although parents say they are open to new ways of thinking about higher education, this lack of confidence and personal pressure in fact may result in parents defaulting to social norms and pushing kids down a known trajectory. In addition, the survey suggested that parents are still willing to pay almost anything to fulfill their higher education dream for their child. Eighty-two percent of parents agree with the statement that achieving the dream of higher education is worth any financial cost.
With divergent attitudes about what is best for every child’s higher education based on personal circumstance and choice, the one common theme for parents is that they are desperate for guidance, support, and assurance that they are helping their kids make the “right” choice about higher education, and currently have very few places to get that support.
That begs the question: Can changing parents’ perception about what a college education truly is—and should be— shift the paradigm so that more students are exposed to a wider variety of higher education opportunities that could lead to student success? By giving students more chances to chart their own educational path, rather than adhere to traditional society norms of college “success,” we can increase the number of Americans who complete a postsecondary credential that works for them—and the economy —rather than pursue a higher education and drop out, or skip higher education altogether.
But to change students’ goals and expectations for education beyond high school, we must first change the minds of their most important influencers—their parents.