May 17, 2000 2 min read

Road to the Middle Class

Americans believe that earning a sheepskin from a college or university is the most important step that people can take to ensure professional and personal happiness—a shift in attitude that experts say has come about in the past eight years.

For More Information

Read the full report, “Great Expectations,” from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, or read a summary, from Public Agenda.

African-Americans and Hispanics place more emphasis on a college degree than do non-Hispanic whites, a recent survey shows, even though members of those minorities participate in higher education at a much lower rate than whites.

“Great Expectations: How the Public and Parents—White, African-American, and Hispanic—View Higher Education” reports the results of a poll of 1,400 U.S. adults. The study was conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan opinion-research organization in New York City.

The new study shows that a greater number of people than in the past believe that skills learned in college can help propel students firmly into the middle class, said the report’s author, John Immerwahr, a senior research fellow at Public Agenda and the associate vice president for academic affairs at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa.

Some 35 percent of the general public polled said earning a college degree was the most reliable step to a good job and a middle-class standard of living. About 30 percent said getting along with others was the most critical step, while 26 percent cited a solid work ethic.

About 77 percent of the respondents overall said earning a college degree was more important than it was 10 years ago. Some 87 percent agreed that a college education had replaced the high school diploma as a ticket to the middle class.

More minority parents of high school students perceived a college education as the most important factor for “succeeding in the world today” than did white parents. Sixty-five percent of Hispanic parents with children in high school and 47 percent of African-American parents with students in high school, ranked higher education as the most critical factor for success; 33 percent of white parents ranked a college degree as the leading factor.

“Groups least well-served by the higher education system put the highest value on education,” said Patrick M. Callan, the president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a research group in San Jose, Calif., that helped finance the study.

The report is available for free by calling Public Agenda at (212) 686-6610, or online at both and

—Julie Blair

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2000 edition of Education Week