Poll shows students grade high school down, college up

Tuesday, April 19, 2011 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 10:32 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 20, 2011

WASHINGTON — Young people give mediocre marks to America's high schools but put great faith in its colleges.

A new Associated Press-Viacom poll suggests most high schools are failing to give students a solid footing for the working world or strong guidance toward college, at a time when many students fear graduation means tumbling into an economic black hole.

Most of the 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed gave high schools low grades for things that would ease the way to college: A majority say their school wasn't good at helping them choose a field of study, aiding them in finding the right college or vocational school or assisting them in coming up with ways to pay for more schooling.

Young people, however, remain enthusiastic about higher education. Two-thirds say students should aim for college, even if they aren't sure what career to pursue. Almost as many say they want to earn at least a four-year degree.

But the majority of high school students probably won't end up with a college degree. According to the Census Bureau, only about one-third of today's 25- to 34-year-olds hold a bachelor's or higher degree. Less than 10 percent get an associate's degree.

Survey participants also give high schools low marks on exposing them to the latest technology in their field and helping them get work experience, according to the poll conducted in partnership with Stanford University.

Learning real-life job skills is important to students such as Mary Margaret Rice, 18, who attends a regional vocational high school in Wakefield, Mass. "I'm getting training to weld," she said.

Rice is interested in joining the military, but not in more schooling after graduation. "Money is a reason," she said, "but the main reason is I can't really focus on classwork and homework."

Overall, only four in 10 young people voice strong satisfaction with their high school education. About as many are "somewhat satisfied." And almost a fifth are unsatisfied — which is twice as many as those who expressed unhappiness with college.

Lovina Dill said she wishes the two high schools she attended in California taught her how to deal with the ups and downs of the real world. She said she was briefly homeless when she was laid off and unable to find a job using her certification in massage therapy.

Dill, now 21, self-employed and living with her father in Arcadia, La., thinks high schools should offer juniors and seniors workshops on how to get a job, how to build a career and the many educational options besides a four-year degree.

The one category where young people rated high schools best was preparing them for further education: 56 percent say their school did a good or excellent job. Those who went on to college or trade school gave their high schools better marks than those who didn't.

The bulk of college students — six in 10 — declare themselves either "very" or "extremely" pleased with their higher education.

Most say a career-focused college education is a high priority, and students think their schools are providing it. A strong majority of students and recent grads give their college high marks for preparing them for the workforce, helping them choose a field of study, exposing them to the latest technology and helping them get internships.

Six in 10 even say their college was "excellent" or "good" at helping them find money to pay for their education.

Young adults' opinions are mixed on whether the nation's education system understands their goals and values. Almost half of college attendees feel that the schools "get" them. That's significantly more than among those whose education stopped at high school; just three in 10 say the school system could identify with them.

Young people credit their own ambition and abilities most for their progress in life, followed by parents, family and friends. Beyond that circle, teachers are the heroes, with four in 10 students saying high school teachers helped a lot. College teachers earn similar praise.

High school and college counselors are a step behind. Most students give them some credit, but less than one-fourth say their counselors were a lot of help, and about three in 10 think they didn't help at all.

Minority students were more likely than white students to say their high school counselors helped them, and they also gave their high schools better ratings for helping find money for college.

Young adults overall see brighter days ahead for education. About half think kids entering elementary school today will get a better education than they did, more than double the number who predict schools will get worse.

The AP-Viacom telephone survey of 1,104 adults ages 18 to 24 was conducted Feb. 18 to March 6 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Stanford University's participation in this project was made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

AP writer Stacy A. Anderson, AP Polling Director Trevor Tompson, Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

How the poll was conducted

The Associated Press-Viacom Survey of Youth on Education by Stanford University was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Feb. 18 to March 6. It is based on landline and cell phone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,104 adults between 18 and 24 years old. Interviews were conducted with 603 respondents on landline telephones and 501 on cellular phones.

The sample included 253 African-Americans, 100 of whom were an oversample to have a sufficient number to analyze their responses as a group. Results were then weighted so that African-Americans reflected their correct proportion within the total sample.

Digits in the phone numbers dialed were generated randomly to reach households with unlisted and listed landline and cellphone numbers.

Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.

As is done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population's makeup by factors such as age, sex, education and race. In addition, the weighting took into account patterns of phone use — landline only, cell only and both types — by region.

For the African-American sample, the portion from the core survey and the oversample were weighted to reflect the African American 18- to 24-year-old population on Hispanic ethnicity, educational attainment, region and age within sex.

No more than one time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 3.5 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. were polled.

There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

The questions and results are available at


Related Articles

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.