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

By Gofen, Anat | Family Relations, February 2009 | Go to article overview

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


Gofen, Anat, Family Relations


Individuals who attain a higher education, whereas both their parents did not, embody the realization of social mobility. They are referred to as first-generation higher education students. Previous analyses had often portrayed them as succeeding despite their family background. This research suggests that although they face many challenges, their families are often facilitators of their success. In-depth, semistructured interviews were used to collect data from Israeli first-generation students (N = 50). We employed a grounded theory approach, and our analysis reveals that breaking the intergenerational cycle of educational level inheritance involves day-to-day family life that prioritizes education through nonmaterial resources. We conceptualized this investment of nonmaterial resources as family capital. A better understanding of this role is valuable for designing efficient policy.

Key Words: family relations, higher education, intergenerational issues, qualitative research, social capital.

Individuals who attain higher education, whereas both their parents did not, are referred to as firstgeneration higher education students (referred to henceforth as first-generation students). Firstgeneration students embody the realization of the social concept of "equal opportunity," which is manifested through one's chances to acquire education at any level independent of one's background. However, a long tradition of mobility research has demonstrated a strong link between the educational level of parents and the educational level of dieir offspring (Crosnoe, Mistry, & Elder, 2002; Hauser, 1998; Haveman & Wolfe, 1995; Solon, 2002). Evidence from these studies indicates that to a large extent, children inherit their parents' educational level. First-generation students break this pattern of intergenerational inheritance of educational level; put differently, they break the intergenerational cycle where parents convey their educational level to their offspring. Breaking that intergenerational cycle is not easy to achieve, making families of first-generation students an exception to the rule. Similar to the United States, there exists only limited upward educational mobility in Israel, and comparable background characteristics, such as family income, place of birth of parents, and educational level of parents, predict the educational attainment level of the family offspring (Dahan, Dvir, Mironichev, & Shye, 2003).

In the United States, first-generation students have been the focus of a growing body of research primarily because of an increasing demographic diversity in postsecondary education and growth in the number of first-generation college students (Choy, 2001; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1998). The importance of first-generation students is tìiat dieir educational mobility leads to social mobility as education is me key for many other aspects of well-being (Cohen & Geske, 1990; Haveman & Wolfe, 1984). Prevailing research has focused on comparing first-generation students to their peers (second-generation higher education students) in various respects such as access rates, academic achievements, academic expectations, college experience, demographic characteristics, and responses to intervention programs (Choy; Pascarella & Terenzini; Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996). As a result, we appear to know much about the life of firstgeneration college students not only during their college years but also about their life prior to college. Nevertheless, surprisingly little is known about the process that enabled those students to become the first in their families to attend college.

Furthermore, we seem to know much about the persistence of educational level but little about breaking this cycle. To shed light on the issue of intergenerational inheritance, this article examines those families whose offspring succeeded in breaking this intergenerational cycle by attaining higher education even though both their parents did not. …

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