Press Release: New Study Shows Long Term Benefits of Educational Access

Disadvantaged Women Ultimately Attain 70% Graduation Rate, Higher Earnings, and Better Educated Children

When measured over the course of a lifetime, the benefits of providing disadvantaged students, particularly women, with wider access to higher education are startling, according to a recently released study by sociologists at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).  The researchers found that over a 30-year period, surveyed women admitted to CUNY in the early 1970s ultimately achieved a 70% college graduation rate, earned an annual average of $7,525 more than they otherwise would have, and passed the benefits of their educational experience on to their children.  The patterns were similar to a 20-year longitudinal study of students nationwide.

The complete findings are reported in a new book, Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations? (Russell Sage Foundation, April 2007), by Graduate Center Professors Paul Attewell and David Lavin, assisted by recent doctoral graduates Thurston Domina and Tania Levy.

“The study is a strong affirmation of the significant benefits to both individuals and society of providing broad access to higher education,” said Professor Attewell. “It shows that college-going not only pays off for disadvantaged students themselves, it also improves the educational chances of their children.”


The researchers followed a cohort of nearly 2,000 women who had entered CUNY colleges in the early 1970s and then re-interviewed them almost thirty years later to measure their achievements three decades after initially attending college.  The participants were selected to reflect an equal representation of white, black, and Hispanic ethnic groupings. Women were chosen for the study in order to facilitate evaluation of the impact of their education on their children, something that would be difficult to track effectively with men.  

The CUNY results were compared to the government’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which tracked a large nationally representative sample of almost 6,000 young women over a 20-year period starting in 1979. The authors used a variety of statistical methods to assess the impacts of college attendance upon the women, including a recently developed technique that separates out the true causal effects of college going itself from other confounding factors such as the mother’s IQ, psychological motivation, and family background.

Graduation Rates:

The 70% graduation rate of the CUNY students after 30 years compares to 61% of the students in the NLSY study.  Among the CUNY students, 75.3% of the white women, 60.2 % of the black women, and 60% of the Hispanic women received an Associate level or higher degree over the 30 year period.  For a Bachelor’s degree or higher, the figures were, respectively, 61.7%, 40.5%, and 38.7%, with 29.7%, 15.9%, and 16.4% going on to a Master’s or higher degree.  While there are variations in categories, the overall pattern in the national survey is similar.  (Full statistical breakouts are reported in the complete study.)  

Much of the national policy debate on graduation rates uses a 6 or 8 year timeframe for assessing success or failure in completing college.  But the authors of Passing the Torch point out that the students in the survey faced life issues that precluded continuous enrollment, causing them to drop in and out according to employment, family, and financial issues.  Given time, many students one might consider drop-outs return to complete their degrees, sometimes at different institutions than the ones they started at. Over half of minority women took more than six years to complete their BAs, for example, and about a quarter took 15 or more years to finish. It has become very common for disadvantaged students to cycle in and out of college several times before finally completing their courses of study, but the authors argue this should neither be read as a sign of individual failure nor of ineffectual educational institutions.

In recent years, the overall profile of college students has changed --- only about 25% of today’s undergraduates are the traditional, parent-supported, fulltime resident students of the past.  Standards such as graduation rates after six years, developed for those students, simply don’t relate to most of the students attending college today, and particularly not those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Economic benefits:

Quite simply, the higher the level of education, the more the women in all ethnic groupings earned. Despite prophesies that wider access to college education would result in devalued degrees, the researchers found that college degrees have held their value even while the number of graduates has burgeoned, and that for women especially, the payoff to a degree has climbed even as student diversity has increased. Moreover, if one measures the value of a degree in terms of the earnings gap between high school graduates and college graduates, some groups of disadvantaged students get a bigger boost from getting a degree than students from more privileged family backgrounds. Even college students who fail to complete a degree earn significantly more than students from similar backgrounds who never went beyond high school at all.

Comparing the results of open access to hypothetical outcomes of more restrictive admissions, the researchers calculated that the annual dollar benefit to each woman averaged $9,705 for whites, $5002 for blacks, and $7,868 for Hispanics.

Impact on the next generation:

The study also measured significant advancements in upward mobility as result of exposure to higher education.  The authors found that college attendance raises a mother’s educational expectations for her children and increases parental involvement in children’s schools. College-going mothers are more likely to send their children to parochial rather than public schools, and to make greater efforts to enrich their children’s cultural environments, and are often more involved in local community organizations than their non-college going peers.

Children also benefit from changes in parenting that are associated with maternal college going, including higher rates of marriage and greater martial stability, both of which improve children’s educational outcomes. Women who go to college are more likely to marry and their marriages are more likely to last than women from similar social backgrounds who don’t go to college. Growing up in a stable two-parent family enhances children’s test scores and other measures of educational progress.


The story that unfolds in the study is not all positive, however. Racial and economic disadvantages still reach across the generations. African-American college women, in particular, find it harder than whites to pass their hard-won achievements on to the next generation, in part because they are much less likely to marry or stay married in the years after entering college. More of their children grow up in single-parent contexts, and with lower household incomes, compared to their Hispanic and white counterparts. Black children are less likely than children in other racial/ethnic groups to match their educated mothers’ achievements.

The book also emphasizes that a weak high school preparation clearly lowers the chances that disadvantaged students will make it through to college graduation.

Overall, though, the evidence in Passing the Torch reaffirms the American ideal of upward mobility through education, even as it documents the persistence of inequality and disadvantage across the generations. It makes a persuasive argument in favor of maintaining access to college for disadvantaged students.

The Graduate Center is the doctorate-granting institution of the City University of New York (CUNY). An internationally recognized center for advanced studies and a national model for public doctoral education, the school offers more than thirty doctoral programs, as well as a number of master ’s programs. Many of its faculty members are among the world’s leading scholars in their respective fields, and its alumni hold major positions in industry and government, as well as in academia. The Graduate Center is also home to twenty-eight interdisciplinary research centers and institutes focused on areas of compelling social, civic, cultural, and scientific concerns.  Located in a landmark Fifth Avenue building, the Graduate Center has become a vital part of New York City’s intellectual and cultural life with its extensive array of public lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical events.  Further information on the Graduate Center and its programs can be found at

Submitted on: JUN 1, 2007

Category: Press Room