Family capital: how first-generation higher-education students break the intergenerational cycle

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Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Paper no. 1322-07

Family Capital: How First-Generation Higher-Education Students Break the Intergenerational Cycle

Anat Gofen Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow Institute for Research on Poverty University of Wisconsin–Madison 1180 Observatory Drive Madison, WI 53706 E-mail:

March 2007

The author wishes to thank the Institutefor Research on Poverty and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research for their support. The expert editorial assistance of Elizabeth Evanson is gratefully acknowledged.

IRP Publications (discussion papers, special reports, and the newsletter Focus) are available on the Internet. The IRP Web site can be accessed at the following address:

Abstract The first childrenin a family to attain a higher education, referred to as “first-generation students,” embody the realization of social mobility. Previous analysis has often portrayed them as succeeding despite their family background. This research suggests that although they face many material challenges, their families are often a key resource, rather than a constraint. This research attempts to reveal whatenabled the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage to be broken. In-depth, semi-structured interviews were used to collect data from Israeli families in which intergenerational mobility took place (N = 50). Employing a grounded theory approach, the analysis reveals that breaking the intergenerational cycle mostly concerns family day-to-day life, and that it reflects three main components: timehorizon, interpersonal relationships, and family values.

Family Capital: How First-Generation Higher-Education Students Break the Intergenerational Cycle First-generation higher-education students (referred to henceforth as “first-generation students” or sometimes simply “students”) embody the realization of the social concept of “equal opportunity,” manifested through one’s chances to acquireeducation at any level, independent of his or her background. However, a long tradition of mobility research has demonstrated a strong link between the socioeconomic status (SES) of parents and the SES of their offspring (e.g., Bowles and Gintis, 2002; Crosnoe, Mistry, and Elder, 2002; Hauser, 1998; Sewell, Hauser, Springer, and Hauser, 2002; Haveman and Wolfe, 1995; Mulligan, 1999; Solon, 1992,2002). Evidence from these studies indicates that to a large extent children inherit their parents’ SES. Breaking that intergenerational cycle is not easy to achieve, and families of first-generation students are an exception to the rule. We seem to know much about the persistence of SES, but little about breaking this cycle. First-generation students have been the focus of a growing body of researchprimarily because of an increasing demographic diversity in postsecondary education and growth in the number of firstgeneration college students (see, e.g., Choy, 2001; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1998; Rendon and Hope, 1996). The importance of first-generation students is that their educational mobility leads to social mobility, whereas education is the key for many other aspects of well-being(e.g., Cohen and Geske, 1990; Haveman and Wolfe, 1984; Mortenson, 2000). Prevailing research focuses on comparing firstgeneration students to their peers (second-generation higher-education students) in various respects: access rates, academic preparation, demographic characteristics, college experience, academic achievements, cognitive development, academic expectations, and responses to interventionprograms (e.g., Choy, 2001; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1998; Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, and Nora, 1996). As a result, we appear to know much about the life of first-generation college students not only during their college years, but also about their life prior to college: demographic characteristics, academic preparation, the college choice process, and the transition from high...
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