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Passing the Torch

Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?

Paul Attewell, David Lavin, Thurston Domina, Tania Levey

Publication Year: 2007

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.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Series: American Sociological Association Rose Series

Title Page

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About the Authors

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p. xv

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pp. xvii-xviii

Participation in American higher education has grown with especial rapidity during the last thirty-five years. One of the key events in this growth was the program of open admissions initiated in 1970 at the large multicampus system of the City University of New York. Although the CUNY experiment has sometimes been viewed as a unique event in American higher...

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1. Passing the Torch: An Overview

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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...

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2. Thirty Years Later: Educational Attainments

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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...

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3. How Families Fared: The College Payoff

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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...

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4. Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage: Maternal Education and Children’s Success

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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...

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5. How College Changes a Mother’s Parenting and Affects Her Children’s Educational Outcomes

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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. When social scientists...

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6. Dads and Neighborhoods: Their Contributions to Children’s Success

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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...

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7. Mass Higher Education and Its Critics

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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...

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8. The Bottom Line: The Difference That Open Access Makes

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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. 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...

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Appendix A: Data Sources and Methods

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pp. 202-213

Most of the analyses presented in this book draw their data from two large surveys, one of which we call the CUNY survey, and the other the NLSY (National Longitudinal Survey of Youth). Both studies are longitudinal, following representative samples of women for decades from roughly their late teens until they had reached...

Appendix B: Additional Tables

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pp. 214-224


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pp. 225-240


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pp. 241-258


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pp. 259-268

E-ISBN-13: 9781610440196
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871540379
Print-ISBN-10: 0871540371

Page Count: 228
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: American Sociological Association Rose Series
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OCLC Number: 794701245
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Passing the Torch

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Social mobility -- United States.
  • College graduates -- United States -- Economic conditions.
  • Educational equalization -- United States.
  • Youth with social disabilities -- Education (Higher) -- United States.
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