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

reviewed by James E. Rosenbaum - December 05, 2008

coverTitle: Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?
Author(s): Paul Attewell and David Lavin
Publisher: Russell Sage Foundation, New York
ISBN: 0871540371, Pages: 268, Year: 2007
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I have long admired David Lavin's enduring commitment to understanding the 1970s reforms of City University of New York (CUNY). Defending Colleges Instead of Improving Them: Review of Passing the Torch, written by David Lavin and Paul Attewell, presents the latest follow-up of this cohort, examining new outcomes. While presenting provocative and useful findings, the book is disappointing in failing to acknowledge the complexity of the topic. In an attempt to identify opposition to their point of view, prior findings from other researchers are misrepresented and distorted.

The CUNY reforms were the first large-scale efforts to expand college access and were very impressive at the time. Responding to protests, CUNY’s four-year colleges expanded enrollment to include the top 50% of high school graduates, while lower-achieving students could enroll in the system’s two-year colleges. This reform paved the way for many others, and, as Lavin and Attewell note, this led to broader access to public higher education across the country.

Lavin has admirably followed his research sample for 30 years, and the research presents some startling findings.  (Lavin, however, failed to follow up on 29% of the sample; this is understandable but underexamined in the book.) The authors find that 29% of women completed their degrees 10 or more years after they first entered college, and 10% completed degrees 20 or more years after entry. Clearly, other datasets have missed these long-term outcomes, and these are valuable findings. In addition, this book finds that college improves a wide range of outcomes: women's chances of marriage, marital stability, parenting, and children's education.  

After documenting these important findings, the final two chapters of the book are devoted to arguing against the "critics of expanded college education." After surveying the conservative rhetoric on this topic, their analysis focuses on my own research in this area.

I was surprised to discover that the authors viewed me as an opponent of expanded college education, and even more surprised by the straw-man representation that was presented, of findings that were understood by other readers (Gamoran, 2003). Below, I will summarize a few specifics, and then consider the larger questions.

Chapter 7 is a series of misrepresentations of prior research, along with new analyses that test these misrepresentations. In one critique, Attewell et al. contend that I claim that college plans reduce high school students' motivation (p. 175). This claim is a misrepresentation of my finding that high school students believed open admissions colleges required less high-school effort than selective colleges (Rosenbaum, 2001). Attewell’s argument is based on quotations taken out of context and ignores the complexity of the issue of student motivation.  

In another analysis, I find that the vast majority of low achieving high school seniors planning college degrees fail to attain any degree 10 years later (Rosenbaum, 2001). I conclude that high school counselors should warn students about these probabilities. Attewell et al. interpret this as an assessment of college effectiveness, and they criticize the analysis for including students who do not enroll in college. The authors attribute their goal of college assessment to me, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to understand what happens to high school students and what advice they need. High schools should not ignore students who state college plans but aren’t likely to enroll in college; they need to advise them about their various options.

Given the well-known earnings benefits of college degrees, I examined in another analysis "whether students with low grades get the same [earnings] benefits from degrees" as students with higher grades (Rosenbaum, p. 75), and I found they got less earnings benefit. Attewell et al. “refute” this conclusion with new analyses, but a closer look reveals that their finding is not comparable to the original. They do not compare the benefits of low-GPA students to other students, nor do they look at the 10-year time span.

Although their findings are interesting, they convey a disturbing complacency. They find a payoff of $3500 after 20 years, and they claim that this justifies college attendance. However, they fail to consider the costs required (tuition, time, and personal sacrifice), and they provide no estimate of when the earnings payoff began. Before choosing to enroll, students might like to know the full costs and benefits of college, and if those benefits are sustained over the long-term. Yet costs, trade-offs, and payoffs from alternative options are not considered.  

Attewell et al. also criticize analyses from my more recent book, After Admissions (2006), written with Regina Deil-Amen and Ann Person. In one chapter, we find that most students don't understand remedial courses -- students don't realize that they aren't getting college credits in remedial classes or that they won't graduate in two years. In light of these student misconceptions, we argue for greater transparency. However, Attewell et al. portray this research as a critique of remedial effectiveness, and they portray the book as advocating dismantling remedial education. Although we review conflicting studies of remedial impact and present a few findings, we explicitly say that this is not our purpose. Our major concern is not remedial impact, it is transparency.

Beyond misrepresenting prior findings, there are important issues brought up in prior research that Attewell et al. ignore altogether. Should high schools and community colleges warn low-achieving students about what college will demand and how long it will take? What are the costs and likely timetables for a degree, and can different kinds of degrees and programs reduce costs and timetables? Are there alternative ways to get good jobs besides college? Attewell et al. advocate one generic "college" that is good for everybody, regardless of cost, and even if it takes 20 years.  

Indeed, given our concerns about transparency, this book is truly disappointing. By ignoring the additional costs and diminished benefits for low-achieving students, these authors fail to inform readers about these implications, and they do not consider alternative types of colleges, alternative college procedures, or alternatives to college that might have important advantages for disadvantaged students, as are discussed in my two books cited above.  

While attaining a college degree after 30 years is a remarkable achievement, and 50-year-old college graduates make interesting public-interest stories, we must ask ourselves if this is actually a sound social policy. Were students warned that their degrees would be lifetime struggles? Were they told that they could avoid remedial courses in college by taking certain courses in high school? Were they informed about alternative degree programs that require fewer remedial courses and deliver valuable degrees within two years? Some students that we interviewed originally planned to pursue a BA, only to have their plans interrupted by unexpected events. For these students, it would be useful to have structured programs that awarded certificates after one year and associates degrees after two years, even if they do not make it to a BA. Attewell et al. don't consider these questions, and they may in fact consider them hostile to the "BA for all" conviction.

This book’s focus on refuting the so-called critics manages to avoid the real issues. There are tough questions that come with expanding higher education, and this book’s analyses avoid all of them. Half of high school graduates have less than tenth-grade achievement. Is universal college access sufficient to address this problem, or should we strive to improve articulation between high school and college, as we suggested? Or if it's going to take 20-30 years to get a BA degree, are there any other degrees or programs that might produce quicker or interim payoffs? A $3500 payoff after 20 years may not justify the costs for some students, and 20 years is a long time to wait. However there is no mention of these concerns. It is good to point out the advantages of expanding education, but it is a disservice to students not to mention the disadvantages of low achievement in high school. In a series of analyses of the payoffs of college, even to students with low achievement, this book seems to tell students that there is no need to work in high school -- you can still get college payoffs with low achievement.

This college-for-all complacency is harmful. Ten-year degree completion rates are shockingly low, and extending the timetable across most of a lifetime doesn't justify poor advising and processes in high schools and colleges. Open admission is a great achievement that does face threats. But we need to work together to figure out how to make it work better. This book’s simplistic and critical view of prior research does not advance our common goals. By spending less time criticizing other research, the authors might have been more effective in identifying policies and agendas that are the true enemies of college access and success. They might have also provided more helpful advice to students, high schools, and colleges. Rather than focusing on presenting only positive findings about a progressive reform, it is important to realize that even reforms can be improved, but that requires careful critical analysis. That would be a real contribution to helping today's students.


Gamoran, A. (2003). Review of Beyond college for all: Career paths for the forgotten half by James E. Rosenbaum. Work and Occupations, 30(3), 374-76.

Rosenbaum, J.E. (2001). Beyond college for all: Career paths for the forgotten half.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press.

Rosenbaum, J.E., Deil-Amen, R. & Person, A.E. (2006). After admissions: From college access to career success. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 05, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15457, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 9:48:23 PM

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About the Author
  • James Rosenbaum
    Northwestern University
    JAMES E. ROSENBAUM, PhD, is professor of sociology, education, and social policy at Northwestern University. His main areas of interest are education, work, social stratification, and careers and the life course. His recent book, Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half, received the American Sociological Association’s Willard Waller Award for Distinguished Scholarship in the sociology of education. He is currently conducting studies on the transition to work among community college students.
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