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Passing the Torch

Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?

Paul Attewell
David E. Lavin
Thurston Domina
Tania Levey
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  • Book Info
    Passing the Torch
    Book Description:

    The steady expansion of college enrollment rates over the last generation has been heralded as a major step toward reducing chronic economic disparities. But many of the policies that broadened access to higher education—including affirmative action, open admissions, and need-based financial aid—have come under attack in recent years by critics alleging that schools are admitting unqualified students who are unlikely to benefit from a college education. In Passing the Torch, Paul Attewell, David Lavin, Thurston Domina, and Tania Levey follow students admitted under the City University of New York’s “open admissions” policy, tracking its effects on them and their children, to find out whether widening college access can accelerate social mobility across generations. Unlike previous research into the benefits of higher education, Passing the Torch follows the educational achievements of three generations over thirty years. The book focuses on a cohort of women who entered CUNY between 1970 and 1972, when the university began accepting all graduates of New York City high schools and increasing its representation of poor and minority students. The authors survey these women in order to identify how the opportunity to pursue higher education affected not only their long-term educational attainments and family well-being, but also how it affected their children’s educational achievements. Comparing the record of the CUNY alumnae to peers nationwide, the authors find that when women from underprivileged backgrounds go to college, their children are more likely to succeed in school and earn college degrees themselves. Mothers with a college degree are more likely to expect their children to go to college, to have extensive discussions with their children, and to be involved in their children’s schools. All of these parenting behaviors appear to foster higher test scores and college enrollment rates among their children. In addition, college-educated women are more likely to raise their children in stable two-parent households and to earn higher incomes; both factors have been demonstrated to increase children’s educational success. The evidence marshaled in this important book reaffirms the American ideal of upward mobility through education. As the first study to indicate that increasing access to college among today’s disadvantaged students can reduce educational gaps in the next generation, Passing the Torch makes a powerful argument in favor of college for all.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-019-6
    Subjects: Education, Business, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-xii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  3. About the Authors
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Chapter 1 Passing the Torch: An Overview
    (pp. 1-14)

    A central theme in our culture is that “getting an education” is the key to upward mobility. Americans hold dear the belief that young people can escape from poverty or disadvantage if they persevere in school and work their way up to a college degree. We also expect that once the first generation in a family has struggled to complete a college education, succeeding generations will sustain this advantage. Through most of the twentieth century, these popular beliefs coincided with increased access to higher education for an ever-broader swath of Americans, including racial minorities and the poor.¹ In recent decades,...

  6. Chapter 2 Thirty Years Later: Educational Attainments
    (pp. 15-34)

    College going in the United States has expanded rapidly throughout the last half century, growing from about 2.3 million undergraduates in 1950 to nearly 15 million by 2001 (National Center for Education Statistics 2003b, 2005a). This huge growth in enrollment was partly driven by population growth and demographics: the giant baby boom cohort entered college in the 1960s and 1970s, and their children, another huge cohort, poured into higher education from the 1990s until the present. However, population growth is only part of the story. Beginning in the early 1970s, universities began opening their doors to groups who previously had...

  7. Chapter 3 How Families Fared: The College Payoff
    (pp. 35-56)

    Despite the fears of some critics that CUNY’s open-admissions policy would prove a failure as thousands of weak students foundered on the harsh realities of academic requirements, we saw in chapter 2 that substantial proportions graduated, often despite serious disadvantages in their academic and socioeconomic backgrounds. However, not all critics of open admissions expected that students’ academic weakness would lead to massive rates of failure. Some predicted that political pressures for academic success would instead produce passing grades for students, even if their performance was subpar—an example of “social promotion” making its presence felt in higher education. Ultimately, students’...

  8. Chapter 4 Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage: Maternal Education and Children’s Success
    (pp. 57-78)

    In previous chapters we examined how going to college affects the lives of women, particularly their subsequent earnings, household income, and home ownership. Our concern in this chapter is whether higher education for women also translates into benefits for the next generation. If a mother’s college education spills over to improve her children’s chances of success, then increasing maternal access to college may reduce the transmission of disadvantage down the generations, and serve as a positive force for social mobility.

    Considering families across several generations reframes social inequality as a dynamic process. Some families rise out of poverty into affluence,...

  9. Chapter 5 How College Changes a Mother’s Parenting and Affects Her Children’s Educational Outcomes
    (pp. 79-125)

    Why do some children develop into successful adults, while others struggle through childhood or adolescence and find the transition to adulthood challenging? From antiquity to the present, thinkers have contended that the manner in which parents raise a child is critical for the child’s ultimate success.¹ When social scientists consider this issue, they often focus on different styles of parenting that coexist in our society, with the idea that some styles of child rearing or certain parenting behaviors are more effective than others in developing independent, self-motivated, or resilient children and that these traits pay off in children’s educational success....

  10. Chapter 6 Dads and Neighborhoods: Their Contributions to Children’s Success
    (pp. 126-153)

    The central concerns of this book are the role that college plays in increasing women’s chances of success, and the spillover from a mother’s college education to her children’s achievement. In pursuing these topics, however, we need to remain aware of what other factors besides maternal education affect children’s well-being: matters such as marital stability and family structure, household income, and neighborhood. These other factors might become confused or conflated with the effect of education, but by separating out the influence of each one through statistical techniques, we can better grasp its role. Equally important, some of these variables, such...

  11. Chapter 7 Mass Higher Education and Its Critics
    (pp. 154-184)

    In previous chapters we discussed whether going to college pays off financially for women, and whether a mother’s college experience improves the educational chances of her children. We also traced out some of the mechanisms whereby maternal education benefited the children of the next generation. Along the way we considered whether racial minorities and poorer students also shared in the positive benefits of access to higher education, when they did make it as far as college. In those analyses, college going turned out to be a generally positive force, both for women and for their children.

    For the last decade,...

  12. Chapter 8 The Bottom Line: The Difference That Open Access Makes
    (pp. 185-201)

    Enrollment in higher education expanded over sixfold since the middle of the twentieth century, and the number of degree-granting institutions more than doubled.¹ Some observers saw this as a tide of mediocrity washing away standards and eroding academic excellence. In retrospect, we can see that the swelling ranks of prospective students intensified competition for entry into the most sought-after colleges. From the Ivy League to the flagship campuses of state universities, most top-ranked colleges were able to admit an ever smaller proportion of applicants, and their freshmen’s SAT scores kept rising (table 8.1). Thus, for the top-ranked institutions—which enroll...

  13. Appendix A Data Sources and Methods
    (pp. 202-213)
  14. Appendix B Additional Tables
    (pp. 214-224)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 225-240)
  16. References
    (pp. 241-258)
  17. Index
    (pp. 259-270)