94% of American parents expect their kid to go to college

Looking at the article “Is a college education worth the price?“, I was pointed to Pew survey data released in May 2011 about what Americans think about college. Among the findings:

Nearly every parent surveyed (94%) says they expect their child to attend college, but even as college enrollments have reached record levels, most young adults in this country still do not attend a four-year college. The main barrier is financial. Among adults ages 18 to 34 who are not in school and do not have a bachelor’s degree, two-thirds say a major reason for not continuing their education is the need to support a family. Also, 57% say they would prefer to work and make money; and 48% say they can’t afford to go to college.

These are pretty high aspirations that cut across income levels and backgrounds. Pew suggests the primary barrier to reaching these expectations is money: the need to support oneself and a family gets in the way.

But I wonder if there is another barrier that is partly due to finances and partly due to other factors: it can be difficult to translate aspirations into outcomes. In today’s world and particularly in America where parents have always desired great things for their children (I remember this coming out distinctly in the original Middletown study), what parent wouldn’t say that their kid will attend college? If one comes from a privileged background, a child can see how this path will logically play out: you go through the stages of school and naturally you will move from high school to college (with finances somehow being taken care of and parents socking away money for over a decade in a college fund). But, in lesser circumstances, where is this easy path? It may be doable but there are a lot of obstacles standing in the way.

This reminds me of Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods. While I can’t remember whether she specifically talks about college aspirations, the class-based styles of parenting she outlines could lead to different outcomes in achieving these parental aspirations.

One proposal for 8 options instead of going to college

James Altucher is a “money manager and author” who has put out some provocative ideas about avoiding college, partly because of its high cost at numerous campuses. And Altucher has recently come up with 8 alternatives to college that he would encourage teenagers to pursue:

  • Start a business.
  • Work for a charity.
  • Travel the world.
  • Create art.
  • Master a sport.
  • Master a game.
  • Write a book.
  • Make people laugh.

This is an interesting list. A number of these items push teenagers to expand their horizons or be creative, rather than simply following prescribed paths of going to college.