Interview: Who gets ahead in higher education?

Why We Wrote This

Knowledge is power. Yet higher ed’s promise of social mobility remains out of reach for many students. One author argues that Americans have forgotten how education can be a collective good.

Jeff Wilson/Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Paul Tough, author of “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.”

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The idea of education as a common good, once a bedrock principle in American society, is slipping, according to Paul Tough, a journalist and author of “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.” 

In an interview with the Monitor’s senior education writer, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Mr. Tough says that people generally agree on the need for higher education to become more equitable and more accessible to students from traditionally underrepresented communities. “But the idea that higher education is only for certain people is a stubborn and persistent one,” he says. 

When the GI Bill passed toward the end of World War II, he says, some elites pushed back on helping soldiers access a college education. “They were wrong,” adds Mr. Tough. “When all those GIs came back ... they did great in college, and their success transformed not only their lives but the nation.”

Mr. Tough argues that Americans’ perception of higher education has evolved from a collective good to a consumer good – a scarce resource that cues competition. But now there’s a need to reassert “basic principles of fairness and equity, and helping others as well as helping yourself,” he says.

Paul Tough spent six years following students as they waited out admissions decisions, scraped together tuition, and navigated the currents of college life. In his new book, “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us,” he also brings a critical eye to the SATs and admissions, explaining why higher education’s rhetoric around promoting social mobility doesn’t match reality. He spoke with the Monitor’s senior education writer, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo.

Why are the words “the years that matter most” in the title, and who is the “us”?

The years after high school have become this critical time in terms of social mobility. The “us” is certainly individual students who are trying to make their way through college. But it’s also the country as a whole. Those individual mobility questions (who is admitted where, how successful they are) ... connect to the health of the economy, the health of our democracy. When you have a dynamic country with lots of opportunity to change your life, people are more ambitious, people are more satisfied.

With the Varsity Blues scandal, there’s been a lot of talk not only about criminal cheating, but also about legal advantages for wealthy families in admissions. What are the incentives that seem to pull against institutions’ public rhetoric about equity?

At selective institutions, especially ones that are not the very richest, it became clear that a lot of the pressure is simply to admit kids with money. When you work in admissions, your job is to raise enough tuition to keep the institution afloat. More students are applying to more colleges ... which means institutions need help figuring out who will accept their offer. More admissions offices are turning to consultants. ... The effect of using those consultants is that it automates and turbocharges this process of [leaning] toward accepting more rich kids.

Has inequity in higher education actually gotten worse over time?

At many highly selective institutions, equity has gone down. They’re admitting fewer low-income students than they were before. The other trend ... is that we are pulling back funding from public higher education ... which really used to be the main driver of social mobility.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes Or Breaks Us” by Paul Tough, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pp.

Are any attempts to improve the success of traditionally underrepresented students working? 

There’s a lot more investment in student success. Those efforts are starting to make a difference. In the past, a lot of institutions just took the attitude that it was sink or swim for their students. The University of Texas and others are now questioning that idea. What they’re showing is that if universities pay a little bit of attention to how their students are doing – particularly students from less well-resourced high schools – they can make a huge impact on how likely those students are to succeed. 

Is there a consensus that equity gaps in higher education need to be solved?

There’s probably a majority opinion [among the public] that higher education should become more equitable. 

At the very end of [World War II], after the GI Bill had passed but before the war ended and the GIs returned, there was this backlash against it from certain segments of elites in higher education ... [who said,] if we let these uneducated sons of farmers and dockworkers into our institutions, it’s going to be a disaster. They were wrong. When all those GIs came back ... they did great in college, and their success transformed not only their lives but the nation. But the idea that higher education is only for certain people is a stubborn and persistent one.

What can readers learn through the students you profile?

The big picture is that for individual students, higher education remains the most effective way for them to achieve huge social mobility, and when it works it really works. There are encouraging and optimistic stories in the book about young people who start with very little, and a college education just completely transforms their lives. 

The other picture is, even within those happy stories, how hard social mobility is on a personal level. Social mobility often means leaving elements of your family and your culture and your history behind. It often creates complicated dynamics within families. 

What is a key moral issue that underlies these discussions?

[At one time in American history] there was this common belief that most Americans had, that our collective public education benefits us all. We have lost that idea in many ways. We now think about higher education more as a consumer good than as a collective good. And we tend to feel that it’s a scarce resource that we need to compete for rather than share. There is a moral aspect to it. It is about basic principles of fairness and equity, and helping others as well as helping yourself.

After immersing yourself in this topic for six years, do you see a solution?

There are initiatives I found encouraging. But is this a question of adjusting and tweaking, or is it a question of a GI Bill-level revolution in higher education? My conclusion is that the changes have to be systemic. 

What was it like to take a freshman calculus class for a whole semester at UT Austin, with Professor Uri Treisman, who has promoted successful teaching methods that reach diverse students?

It gave me this opportunity to embed myself in the lives of a lot of students at once, to understand how they were all experiencing this same course. It was definitely my favorite experience. [I watched] Ivonne, a student with relatively low SAT scores, overcome those obstacles and succeed ... and go on to be a math major.

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