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Two-Generation Initiatives Seek to Create Opportunities

IPR briefing discusses national model, Evanston pilot project


robyn gabel

State Representative Robyn Gabel asks the panel a question during IPR's April 16 Policy Research Briefing on two-generation solutions.

At a policy research briefing held at Evanston Township High School on April 16, IPR Director and Fellow David Figlio welcomed nearly 130 parents, students, faculty, and community members, including Evanston’s mayor and a state lawmaker. They came to hear four experts broach a topic of great concern to Evanston and communities across the nation: how to provide greater opportunities for low-income families by furthering education for parents and their children.

In the 21st-century global economy, full-time, low-skilled jobs that can support a family have steadily disappeared, said IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale in framing the discussion. To compete for better jobs requires skills and training beyond a high school diploma and thus more education.

Education researcher and sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin-Madison noted, “The more education you have, the better off your children are.”

Yet 67 percent of low-income children have parents with a high school degree or less, and disparities in educational attainment widen from the top to bottom quintiles, Chase-Lansdale said. Only 1 in 10 parents at the lowest-income quintile hold a college degree, while the figure jumps to 1 in 2 for those in the top 20 percent.

A promising avenue for addressing the matter is that of two-generation programs, where parents and children further their education simultaneously, Chase-Lansdale continued. They capitalize on a unique moment, allowing parents to go back to school at a point when their children are between pre-K and elementary school. They have received renewed interest by many, and they form the basis of several promising projects around the nation including one launched in Evanston in February.

In addition to two-generation program models and the Evanston pilot, the panelists also covered research on aspects related to two-generation programs that could contribute to boosting outcomes if implemented.

“I’m very impressed with this new research, really looking at a two-generation program and approach to improving children’s chances for success,” said State Representative Robyn Gabel (D–Evanston), following the briefing. “I very much agree with the theory that in order to improve children’s chances you need to improve their parents’ education as well.”

Getting Student-Parents Over Multiple Hurdles

sara goldrick-rab
Sara Goldrick-Rab

“It’s laudable to encourage parents to go to college, but they face significant challenges once they are there,” Goldrick-Rab said.

More “student-parents,” are going to college than ever before, but less than half of them will go on to graduate or obtain a certification within six years. “Those who leave are doing so without credentials and with debt,” she said.

The cascading problems that these parents face can force them to make difficult decisions affecting their children. They tend to be poorer, often juggling school, full-time jobs, and parenting. They are also concentrated in institutions with very few resources to help them overcome difficulties with childcare, financial aid, mental health, and other issues.

“Frankly, in many cases, they are lacking access to many of the basic needs they have before they can pursue any form of higher learning,” she said. They go to class having skipped meals, or not having a roof over their heads or a bus pass. While public assistance programs provided these in their K-12 years, she explained, that access is cut off in college.

“So if you live in Section 8 housing and you go to college, you are out,” she said. “These policies are in sharp conflict with one another.”

Thus, helping college-going parents maintain access to public benefits is a good place to start, yet more help is needed especially with financial aid. Though low-income student-parents qualify for modest amounts of financial aid, much of it is through loans, and they can still wind up owing 100 percent or more of their take-home pay, she said.

Coordinating assistance programs on campus is one way that could help out. Goldrick-Rab discussed some “one-stop” centers, such as Single Stop USA. They offer supplemental assistance in many areas from public benefits and legal issues to taxes and household finances. Such programs are operating around the country, but they are few and far between, she concluded.

Building Assets to Build Outcomes

mesmin destin
Mesmin Destin

IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin then followed up with a description of asset-accumulation approaches that target children and parents, which could be incorporated into two-generation programs.

Destin first pointed to sobering statistics that illustrate the vast gap in wealth and assets amongst U.S. families and mirror to some extent the distribution of education and income. The richest 20 percent of families own almost 90 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 40 percent of families own less than 1 percent. Or to put it more starkly, the median earnings for white families are more than $110,000 per year, while they fall below $6,500 for black and Hispanic families.

Such great racial disparity in wealth has given rise to a new movement over the past 20 years, Destin said. These programs want to go beyond just raising income to concentrate on “building assets,” and Children’s Savings Accounts, or CSAs, have been the main vehicle for this. The accounts work by automatically enrolling participants, encouraging additional deposits through incentives, matching deposits, and maximizing small deposits by avoiding fees.

Destin’s review of CSA research has shown that the model of building assets has both immediate and “downstream” effects, with influences showing up for CSA holders’ socio-emotional development, standardized test performance, grades, and college-going expectations.

Other studies of his reveal that middle school students who are given information about financial aid are more motivated to go to college—doubling their school effort over a control group.

“Knowing that there are resources available to pay for college—and there will be an open financial path to college—that information immediately shows effects on the current effort students exert in school,” Destin continued. He also found students have higher GPAs when they see themselves as college-bound.

Additional research has shown that even very modest savings accounts increase not only college attendance, but graduation rates as well.

“Even these small savings amounts—of $100 to $500—have an effect on the likelihood that students will go on to college and actually succeed in college,” Destin said.

Destin concluded by recapping how such programs can enhance two-generation programs through the primary school years and later on in the college years. 

Modeling Two-Generation Programs

lindsay chase-lansdale
Lindsay Chase-Lansdale

While two-generation programs are not new, they have received much renewed attention over the past few years, Chase-Lansdale said, especially from leading foundations like the Gates Foundation and Ascend at the Aspen Institute. Ascend has provided funding for a two-generation pilot project in Evanston.

Definitions of two-generation programs abound, so Chase-Lansdale defined the model she and her colleagues developed as Two-Generation 2.0—one that tightly and “simultaneously connects and integrates high quality and intensive human capital investments” through high-quality childhood education and job training for parents.

Their hypothesis is that such programs will have a greater impact than just those that target early childhood education alone, Chase-Lansdale said. But theory is ahead of evidence and practice, so there is a need to measure the effects that such interventions might have.

“The theories are actually more compelling than he evidence, right now, which is why Terese [Eckrich Sommer] and I are studying them,” she laughed. In terms of program evaluation, the IPR research team is studying the implementation process and how various outcomes, such as career goals, financial circumstances, and skill sets, change over time for the participants.

“Most parents want the best for their children and so they will do everything for their child,” she emphasized. She followed up by noting that two-generation programs make the link between educating the two and capitalize on this sentiment, and the families benefit from a “double-whammy” effect whereby the children are better prepared kindergarten and parents for the workforce and better job opportunities.

The Evanston Pilot

teresa sommer
Teresa Eckrich Sommer

The Two-Generation Initiative in Evanston launched in February by a three-way partnership between Northwestern, the Evanston Community Foundation, and Ascend. The local pilot is based on a national model that encompasses a unique set of local partnerships between community colleges, employers, adult education initiatives, and elementary schools.

IPR senior research scientist Teresa Eckrich Sommer, who is evaluating the Evanston pilot with Chase-Landsale, described how Evanston’s two-generation model works.

The first cohort consists of 13 mothers, either high school graduates or GED holders, each of whom has at least one child age five or under, Sommer explained. They start with a three-month curriculum to explore career possibilities, and receive monthly coaching and weekly peer support. They also receive financial incentives and learn how to build links to employers, and their children are enrolled in high-quality education centers.

“What is our long-term vision?” Sommer asked. “We want to be able to provide parents with the kind of support to enter intensive training and education that will get them careers in the local marketplace and be able to progress along as their children grow at each stage in their career.”

All of the participants face multiple challenges. They include limited incomes, high educational debts, and a negative self-image, among others. Their first steps in the program encompass defining their personal and professional goals, with the next step being learning how to meet those goals.

How might they achieve this? In addition to benefiting from the services provided by the project, Sommer noted that they are all “highly motivated” and then pointed to a list of personal adjectives the mothers used in describing themselves. A few were “resilient,” “passionate,” “resourceful,” “positive,” motivated,” and “funny.”

“This is a group with a lot of strengths,” Sommer said.

evanston pilot
Artishia Hunter (l.), director of the two-generation initiative
with the Evanston Community Foundation, poses with
one of the mothers enrolled in the program.

Moving forward, the organizers aim to further develop the programming and welcome two more cohorts with 15 participants each in 2014–15. Timing is a critical factor.

“It’s important to do this when the children are young and most sensitive to the forces of the environment,” Chase-Lansdale concluded, pointing out that the full benefits of the program could take many years to develop. “If a mother starts in the program when her child is two and she is 20 and 10 years go by, and she gets an [associate’s degree], the child will only be 12 and she will be 30”—and at a point where she will be able to help her child thrive in high school and beyond.

“I am delighted that IPR was able to hold its first ‘hometown’ briefing for such an engaged crowd, and we thank our wonderful co-sponsors,” Figlio said after the event. “We organize these briefings because they fulfill a key part of our core mission—to bring the best social science research to a wide public for discussion and policy consideration, and we certainly accomplished that here tonight.”

The policy research briefing was co-sponsored with Evanston Township High School, the Childcare Network of Evanston, Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy, the Evanston Community Foundation, and Ascend at the Aspen Institute.

Lindsay Chase-Lansdale is Frances Willard Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Associate Provost for Faculty, and IPR Fellow. Sara Goldrick-Rab is Associate Professor of Education Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Mesmin Destin is Assistant Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and Psychology and IPR Associate. Teresa Eckrich Sommer is Senior Research Scientist at IPR. David Figlio is IPR Director and Fellow and Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics.