All of my friends and acquaintances, mostly current and former colleagues in higher education and journalism, earned at least baccalaureate degrees. And nearly all of their children also earned baccalaureate degrees.
I took all of that for granted until a few weeks ago when I realized that I am in rare company and that the children of my colleagues and acquaintances are exceptions to a growing trend referred to as "downward mobility." This topic is rarely discussed in newspapers and magazines.
According to "Falling Short of College," a new study by Elizabeth Dayton, a doctoral student in sociology at Johns Hopkins University, one young person in four whose parents had a baccalaureate degree did not earn that same degree. Dayton presented the paper in April at the annual meeting of the American Education Association in Vancouver.
To reach her findings, she used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a survey of 9,000 students between the ages of 12 and 16 that the U.S. Labor Department began 1997. The results of the survey were released recently.
Because we have become obsessed with raising academic achievement, legislating school reform and producing more college graduates, Dayton's findings are valuable. Instead of following the old method of examining parental education, race, class and aptitude to explain children's academic success or failure, Dayton focused on the tone and substance of family relationships. She made clear the study is not calling for universal college attendance.
"It appears families may be able to 'guard' against downward mobility by engaging in certain kinds of interactions with their children," Dayton writes. "While background characteristics and aptitude are widely analyzed as fundamental influences on youth outcomes, family relationships are far more often missing from analyses."
The research suggests that positive interactions can make college attendance a natural expectation.
Dayton asked the students questions that encouraged them to be candid about their perceptions of the tone and quality of their family relationships.
They were asked, for example, if they believed their parents supported them. Did their parents assist them with important matters? Did their parents seem to arbitrarily cancel plans and blame them when things did not work out as expected? Did their parents take their lives seriously by knowing, for instance, the names of their friends, friends' parents and teachers? Did their parents know where they went after school and what they did?
The payoff for frequent parent-child conversations is clear, Dayton writes. These conversations reduce by about a third the chances that children would fail to reach their parents' level of education. Being permissive and showering young people with money and all the comforts do not guarantee a sure path to college graduation.
In fact, based on earlier research, permissiveness and high income may have negative effects that contribute to disappointment and failure. Dayton writes that engaged parenting, described as strict and responsive, guards against downward mobility. Not surprisingly, two parents in the home tend to be better than one.
I would be remiss if I did not stress my personal interest in this issue. During more than 20 years of teaching hundreds of students in college, I discovered that the quality of family life contributes greatly to academic success. And I vividly recall the bitter controversy over the 1965 Moynihan Report that tied the academic failure of black children to the failure of the black family, which lacked the interactions specified in "Falling Short of College."
The same old realities remain. Too many black families have not improved since 1965. As it was then, nothing takes the place of a loving, nurturing and wholesome home environment in which children are taught the benefits of making responsible choices and avoiding the pitfalls of negative peer pressure.
My hope is that Dayton's study will encourage educators and other professionals to use the findings to encourage blacks, along with others, to become engaged parents. They should be strict and they should be responsive to the needs of their children to increase the odds of college graduation.