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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.