Professor Attewell was born in London, and completed his undergraduate education in England before moving to the United States to pursue a doctorate in sociology at the University of California at San Diego. He then taught for several years at the University of California at Santa Cruz and at Stony Brook University in New York before joining the faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center in 1990, where he works in two doctoral programs: sociology and urban education.
Professor Attewell's recent research has been in the sociology of education with a focus on the relationship between educational institutions and social inequality. He has studied middle and high schools and colleges. His co-authored book Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education Pay Off Across the Generations? won the American Education Research Association's Outstanding Book Award, and also the Grawemeyer Award in Education. His current research focuses on the reasons for low degree completion rates in non-selective colleges, and includes randomized controlled field experiments in which lower income undergraduates are encouraged to increase their "academic momentum" in college, using monetary incentives.