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Breaking the poverty cycle through higher education

March 5th, 2009


David Lavin

Question: How can we break the generational cycle of poverty?

Answer: Make sure that the disadvantaged, especially women, have access to a college education.

That message came across loud and clear during a lecture by the 2009 Grawemeyer Award winners in education, David Lavin and Paul Attewell, as they discussed their research on the impact that open enrollment policies have had on female college graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Lavin and Attewell, both sociology professors at City University of New York’s Graduate Center and authors of “Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?” spoke to a group at the University of Louisville Tuesday evening.

During the lecture, Lavin explained that while the United States has enjoyed explosive growth in degree attainment since 1950, poor and minority students faced greater obstacles in higher education because enrollment policies were geared to high academic achievers. Beginning in the 1960s, however, some universities began to relax enrollment policies making it easier for more diverse groups to enter college.

This policy shift faced plenty of critics. Some believed universities were “dumbing down” their degrees and — citing low graduation rates — said many of the disadvantaged simply were not “college material.”

Lavin and Attewell’s study focused on nearly 2,000 disadvantaged women who entered City University of New York (CUNY) through open enrollment in the early 1970s. The researchers followed up with them 30 years later to find out how earning a college degree had changed their lives. They compared their results with the government’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which tracked nearly 6,000 women over a 20-year period from the late 1970s.

Not surprisingly, Lavin and Attewell found that the women had higher earnings than their non-degreed peers. They also determined that the value of a college degree did not erode over time as critics predicted, but in fact became even more valuable, and they learned that 70 percent of the CUNY women eventually graduated, but often took longer than the six- or eight-year timeframes typically used by colleges to measure graduation rates.


Paul Attewell

A large part of Lavin and Attewell’s work also examined the generational benefit of earning a college degree.

“Maternal access to higher education pays off handsomely for her children,” Attewell said. “The children have a much better shot at educational success and upward mobility.”

Attewell noted that the college-educated women in their study had higher expectations for their children and were actively engaged in helping them succeed. During some of the interviews with the CUNY women he said he heard comments such as, “No one was there for me, but I’m going to be there to back my kid up.”

While their story is largely positive, the disadvantaged still face challenges even after obtaining a degree, Lavin and Attewell told their audience. For instance, they will continue to face racial and economic obstacles. Also, those born into the middle or upper class get all of the immediate benefits of a college education, but for the disadvantaged it may take two or three generations to attain the same level of upward mobility.

Lavin and Attewell’s research shows the dramatic impact of public policy decisions — in this case, open enrollment guidelines — on families and future generations.

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