Multiplying Benefits of College for Everybody

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 29, 2007; 10:20 AM

Many intelligent people don't think going to college is so important. They send me emails whenever I vent about the need to prepare more low-income students for higher education. They ask a simple, excellent question: Why should college be for everybody?

They say some kids are not capable of succeeding in college. They say some kids don't want to go to college. They say if everyone went to college, who would do the important non-college jobs, like plumbing and carpentry and auto repair? They say if everyone went to college, we would have a lot of unemployed college graduates--as has happened in some underdeveloped countries--with neither the skills nor the desire to work with their hands.

These are honest statements worthy of debate. My quick response: Maybe there will come a day when we have more college grads than we need, and the smartest high schoolers will compete to get into the best trade schools. But at the moment only about a third of American adults have graduated from college, and the economy appears to have room for many more.

College graduates earn considerably more money over their careers than non-college graduates. They have more choices about what to do with their lives, and much more flexibility if they change their minds about what is best for them. If a Hamilton College graduate with a degree in English literature decides she would prefer to become a fry cook or a midwife or a farmer, she can develop those skills relatively quickly as a paid assistant or apprentice, and still enjoy writing poetry in her spare time. But if that same young woman is told in high school that she just isn't college material, and accepts a more menial job after graduation, a late-blooming desire to earn a degree in English literature from Hamilton is going to be much more difficult, expensive and time-consuming.

But an exceptional new book has reminded me of another important reason for encouraging more students to go to college--the effect that experience will have on their children. Many colleges are worrying, with good reason, about the small portion of low-income students entering their freshman classes. The book "Passing The Torch," by Paul Attewell and David E. Lavin, sociologists at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, explains that the failure to welcome more such students into college not only reduces their chances for greater income and more choices, but ignores a golden opportunity to raise their children to a higher intellectual and social level, and increase the chances that they also will attend college.

Attewell and Lavin examined the impact of one of the most controversial moments in the history of American higher education--the decision in the early 1970s to guarantee all graduates of the New York City high schools admission to the 18-campus City University of New York (CUNY). They followed the low-income students who poured in the city college system and earned degrees, and then looked at what happened to them after they left college, as well as what happened to their children. They also analyzed the impact of college graduation on low-income students and their children nationally during roughly the same period.

The opening of CUNY to all New York high schools grads has been criticized as a wrong-headed dumbing-down of a great system with a long history of raising the brightest young people from immigrant families into the middle class. Eventually, then-Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, who objected to the university remedial courses designed to help ill-prepared freshmen, got the decision reversed, and admission became somewhat selective again.

But before that happened, many low-income students with inadequate high school educations got into college. Many struggled with the graduation requirements, but many also earned degrees. Attewell and Lavin make three important points about those graduates, based on a sample of about 2,000 of them, plus a much larger national sample.

First, the disadvantaged women who are the subject of the Attewell-Lavin study (since it was easiest to follow their children) completed college in far greater numbers than scholars predicted at the time. Half of them received bachelor's degrees, far above the overall college graduation rate of low-income American women. Some of them took a long time to accomplish this, in some cases 10 to 20 years, but they reached their goal.

Second, the rewards of college graduation were there for them, despite predictions that letting all these disadvantaged students into the city colleges would degrade the value of their degrees. The women who started at CUNY eventually earned as much as other women of the same age and degree in national studies, and that was considerably above what they would have earned if they had not gone to college.

Third, the low-income women who earned the degrees developed parenting skills that encouraged academic achievement in their children to a far greater degree than similar women who did not earn college degrees. Such skills included taking children to museums, including them in conversations and getting involved in their schools. As a consequence, their children were more likely to enroll in college than women of similar background who did not have the advantage of a chance to get to college despite their feeble high school records.

The economic benefits of college for these women, and for their communities, were breathtaking. Attewell and Lavin looked at 13,338 women whose admission to a four-year college or to a community college was made possible by opening up the city university system between 1970 and 1972. In the year 2000 that group made $102.6 million--an average bonus of $7,692 per person--more than researchers calculated they would have made if they had not been given a chance at college. That extra money was not only a benefit to them, but to the local economies where they spent it.

Attewell and Lavin note that not all of the students admitted to the city university system during open enrollment benefited from the change and that such policies are far from a perfect solution to the lack of academic opportunity for low-income students. In particular, they said (and I heartily agree), more needs to be done to improve the high school preparation of disadvantaged high school students.

But they have shown this is not a zero sum game. Millions of low-income Americans, their data demonstrate, have the ability to use college to acquire new skills and capabilities that improve their lives, and their children's lives, in a significant way.

We can argue about how many people need or want college. Many do not. But there is no argument that we are not giving nearly as many of them as we ought to a college experience. American higher education has many flaws, but it still is one of the greatest engines of social, economic and intellectual advancement ever invented. It should be a national goal to give every American, particularly those who start out in life in last place, a shot at it. If we do that, Attewell and Lavin prove, all of us are going to be the better for it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company