The Long View on Gauging College Success

CUNY sociologists say it takes far more than six years to see the benefits of higher education for disadvantaged students.
June 15, 2007

A new book from sociologists at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York argues, somewhat uncontroversially, that a college education greatly benefits disadvantaged students. Graduates across the board have a greater earning potential. Their families are upwardly mobile.

But the authors of "Passing The Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?" say that six to eight years, the conventional timetable for measuring success in whether a student has completed college, is too short when considering "nontraditional" or low-income students whose careers or life situations might prevent them from continuous enrollment at one institution.

"Our template for evaluating students is out of date," said Paul Attewell, one of the authors. "Three-fourths of students today aren't traditional, so it doesn't make sense to try to understand them through the lens of an 18-year-old living in a dorm. These aren't failed traditional students; they are the new norm."

Attewell and David E. Lavin, the other author and CUNY professor, followed a group of nearly 2,000 women who entered the university system in the early 1970s and checked back nearly 30 years later to see how they had fared. The authors sought an equal representation of white, black and Hispanic students. They sampled only women because the study looks at the correlation between parents' educational levels and how they approach their children's education -- something that would be difficult to measure with a male sample given those who do not play a role in parenting, Attewell said.

The authors say the book is a response to critics of CUNY's "open admissions" policy, adopted in the early 1970s, in which the system accepts all graduates of New York City high schools. That led to a greater proportion of disadvantaged students, and opened the door for some to conclude that the policy has been a failure "as thousands of weak students foundered on the harsh realities of academic requirements," the book says.

Attewell said the professors' study shows that thinking is wrong -- particularly if you measure the students' success over the long haul. "The movement says all these nontraditional students shouldn't be in college. It's not even in their best interest. They aren't going to graduate," he said. "There's a bias in the numbers the way they are now. Poor students, women, students of color all look bad using the six-year data set. But if you look longer, it's a trajectory that does pay off."

Over the 30-year time frame, more than 70 percent of women in the survey had graduated from CUNY. More than half of minority women took more than six years to complete their bachelor's degrees, and about one-fourth took more than 15 years to finish.

White students had the highest graduation rates among those surveyed. More than three in four attained an associate level or higher degree over 30 years, compared with 60 percent of both black and Hispanic respondents. Sixty-two percent of white students, 41 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students received at least a bachelor's degree. And for master's degrees or higher, the breakdown was 30 percent of the white women, and 16 percent of both black and Hispanic women.

In the CUNY study, the more than 70 percent of women who had finished college were earning an annual average of $7,525 more per year than they would have without a degree, the authors calculated. Even college students who enter college but don't earn a diploma earn significantly more than students from similar backgrounds who never went beyond high school at all, according to the study.

The authors point out that the survey results are similar to findings of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a government report that tracked thousands of women over a 20-year period beginning in 1979. Sixty-one percent of women surveyed in that sample had graduated over the time period.

Much has been said about the appropriate way to measure graduation rates. F. King Alexander, president of California State University at Long Beach, is working with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to try to change federal policy and the perception that six years is the gold standard. Clifford Adelman, a long time Education Department researcher who is now a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, has proposed changes that he says would better account for the reality that traditional and nontraditional students have different timetables. But he has also said that the current rates can be meaningful and that he is skeptical of changes that could deemphasize accountability.

The authors' case about why it takes several decades to figure the worth of a college degree for disadvantaged students rests largely on an analysis of how the parents' education affects the family. Attending college raises a mother's educational expectations for her children and increases parental involvement in her child's education, the book says.

For instance, Attewell and Lavin found that college graduates in this sample were more likely to send their children to private high schools and be involved in community organizations. They also proved to have more stable marriages than their counterparts who didn't graduate from college. (The study draws a correlation between a stable household and a child's performance in school.)

These trends were less pronounced for black college graduates. More black children grew up in single-parent homes with lower household incomes than the other races surveyed, and thus the mothers surveyed said it was more difficult for their children to reap the benefits of the parents' education. Attewell said black children whose parents went to college still had an advantage over those whose parents didn't.


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