Millennial Views on Education

By: Maria Salciccioli, Policy Analyst

Last week, The Raben Group hosted Dr. Cathy Cohen from the GenForward Project at the University of Chicago at a panel event titled “Millennials and Education: New Research on America’s Most Diverse Generation.” Dr. Cohen presented rich survey data on millennials’ views on a host of education-related issues. (Millennials were defined as current 18- to 34-year-olds.)

Laura Jimenez, Director of Standards and Accountability at the Center for American Progress, and Dakarai Aarons, Vice President of Strategic Communications at the Data Quality Campaign, joined Dr. Cohen to offer expert analysis of the data, examining potential causes for the trends expressed in the survey data. By the panel’s own admission, Aarons was the only one of the speakers who is himself a member of the millennial generation; nonetheless, all three offered great insights into data, access to education, and challenges in our education system illuminated by survey responses.

Cohen presented data generated in response to a survey that was administered in June and July of 2017, disaggregated by race and ethnicity. Questions included: What is the role of a student’s economic class in determining educational quality? What is the role of race in determining educational quality? Are U.S. schools held accountable for the performance of students of color? What are the best ways to improve education?

Some of GenForward’s findings:

  • Most millennials gave their own education a high grade, but they gave lower grades to U.S. public schools. 26% of black students, 31% of Asian students, 32% of Latino students, and 20% of white students think U.S. schools deserve an A or B letter grade. The rest rate our schools C or lower.
  • Across every racial and ethnic background, in rank order, the top three ideas on how to improve K-12 education were the same: increase school funding, improving teacher training, and increase teacher pay.
  • While slight majorities of black and Asian students said students of color receive a worse education than their white counterparts, slight majorities of Latino and white students responded that race is not a major determinant of educational quality.
  • In contrast, over 70% of students of all races said they believed that low-income students receive a worse education than their white peers.
  • The survey data suggest a majority of millennials support charter schools and school voucher programs, particularly for low-income students, with the strongest support coming from black respondents. However, as the panelists pointed out, neither charters nor vouchers ranked among millennials’ top ideas for improving education, indicating approval for the concepts but not necessarily energy or deep buy-in to either.

According to Cohen, the commonly held assumption that millennials are uniformly more progressive and inclusive than generations before them is not supported by the available data. Those who value equity in education, she argued, must therefore do more to shape public opinion and not simply assume that trends will become more favorable with the passage of time. As an example, Cohen cited responses to a not-yet-published question on whether millennials believed in the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline, noting that white respondents were the least likely to agree that it is a real phenomenon.

Jimenez addressed millennials’ competing interests; millennials want more money in public schools, but they also support publicly funded vouchers, which pull money out of traditional public schools. They want greater levels of personalization, which require more data on individual students, but they also call for fewer tests. She talked about the strong case to be made for fewer, better assessments, which would move schools toward personalization without over-testing.

It would have been admittedly less compelling but useful to see the full set of questions during the presentation; one thing I was curious to see, for example, was the list of options respondents were given when asked to rank the best ways to improve education nationally. Full surveys are available at www.GenForwardSurvey.com, and I look forward to reading the full questions and seeing what they’ve asked millennials in the past.

A student from American University asked the panelists’ thoughts on a survey item on extreme speech. Asked if universities should curb extreme speech, black and Latino students supported the idea to a greater extent than their white or Asian peers. Aarons worried about the balance in asking schools to curb extreme speech – which may make minority students feel safer, particularly in our current political climate – and simultaneously ensuring extreme speech limitations are not defined in ways that ultimately disempower minority voices.

I’m interested to see survey respondents’ thoughts about more education issues (while the presentation did not present the full data set, a paper is available online), and I’m glad to hear that there are organizations thinking about next steps and how to have conversations that increase public support for equity. But I also think that those of us who are invested in educational equity have a lot of work to do in terms of changing the hearts and minds of our 18- to 34-year-old peers.

 

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