The percentage of Americans with a college degree is at an all-time high. But rates of college completion differ — sometimes dramatically — between racial and ethnic groups. 

As it turns out, so do attitudes about the importance of a college degree — but not how you might expect. A new analysis of findings by the Pew Research Center shows that when black, white and Hispanic parents are asked about education, a significantly higher percentage of black and Hispanic parents say it’s important that their children earn a college degree. 

Nearly eight in 10 (79%) black parents say a degree is important, as do nearly nine in 10 (86%) Hispanics. By contrast, two-thirds (67%) of white parents with children under 18 say it is either “extremely” or “very important” that their children earn a college degree.

The survey data show blacks and Hispanics are also more likely to believe that having a college degree is a key component to being in the middle class.

The findings stand in contrast to recent U.S. Census Bureau figures that show white adults are much more likely than those in the other two groups to have completed four years of college. 

In 2014, the Census Bureau reported the percentage of adults (25 and over) with four years of college under their belt was 32% overall — 35.6% for white adults, 22.2% for blacks and 15.2% for Hispanics.

For Juliana Menasce Horowitz, associate director of research at Pew, the findings make sense.

“It really seems like there’s something aspirational there,” she said. “To me it makes sense that it’s the groups that don’t have this high educational attainment that say, ‘This is important to our children. Perhaps it’s not something that we were able to accomplish ourselves, but we want our children to have different opportunities than we had.’”

The findings didn’t surprise José Luis Santos of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group for low-income and minority students.

“Many of us in this business have been saying this for many years,” he said. “We don’t think that aspirations of black parents and their children, or Latinos and their children, are any different from whites — or, if you do it in terms of income, (from) more affluent individuals ... The issue is: How do we go from aspirations to actually moving through high school, getting to college and then graduating from college? Those are the bigger questions.”

He said the entire education system must rethink how it distributes resources, from well-trained teachers to well-equipped school buildings. 

“If we really cared about these students and we wanted to embrace this aspiration, we should do a lot more at the institutional level,” he said.

Santos said the new data show “in a resounding way” that minority families have high aspirations for their children. 

The data suggest that white families, which are more likely to be in the middle class, may simply come to the endeavor of educating their children with more options, Santos and Horowitz said.

“When you have a certain level of income and comfort, you realize two things,” Santos said. “If I have some financial means, I want my child to go to college, but if my child doesn’t … I have much more social and cultural capital to know that they can succeed in other ways — starting a business — without having a degree.”

He added, “Quite frankly, poor people don’t have the luxury to question the value of higher education.”

Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo