Book Review: Up Close and Personal? — “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us”

By Justin Grosslight

With journalistic flair, The Years That Matter Most brilliantly shows how, in terms of college opportunities, the scales of justice tilt in favor of the wealthy.

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pages, $28.

In my last post, I reviewed Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap, which explored the role that education plays in impeding social mobility in America. Still, despite that book’s statistical arguments about changes in American social structure, I yearned to hear from individual voices about the difficulty of making key decisions. That is just what journalist Paul Tough provides in The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us (serendipitously, it was published on the same day as Markovits’s book). In many ways, Tough’s text is everything that The Meritocracy Trap is not: it follows the lives of individual actors, digs into the folds of educational bureaucracy, and tells its story through elegant prose. Focusing on college education, Tough’s thesis is straightforward: “mobility in the United States today depends, in large part, on what happens to individuals during a relatively brief period in late adolescence and early adulthood.” The truth is, success in college is often shaped from the start by wealth and its privileges. With incisive prose, Tough illuminates this quandary, vividly dramatizing the many struggles within the American collegiate matrix.

Tough’s argument builds upon research findings arrived at by economists Raj Chetty and Caroline Hoxby. According to Chetty, financial outcomes are determined more by the caliber of the college one attends than his or her family’s socioeconomic status.  Hoxby, meanwhile, argues that ultra-selective colleges pay off because they invest more in core student spending (surprisingly, they are losing money on each undergraduate they enroll). Both conclude that, for students of all backgrounds, an elite college education procures significant economic benefits, but that rich and poor students attend very different types of colleges. This is largely because disadvantaged families lack the information they need to make informed judgments, while better-off families increasingly choose colleges based strictly on rankings.  Hoxby aimed to mitigate the problem by sending underprivileged but bright students packets about the college admissions process,  ultimately through college testing agencies such as ACT Inc. and the College Board.

Regrettably, the attempt came up short regarding economic leveling. Readers meet Ivy-educated CEO David Coleman, whose exorbitantly-paid executive career has focused on combating claims that the company’s SAT college readiness exam favors privileged students. The College Board overhauled the SAT in 2016, joining forces with online education platform Khan Academy to come up with a preparation that would be accessible and unbiased to all students. But these efforts unfortunately maintained the status quo, resulting in “one grand well-publicized attempt after another to make the SAT more equitable or fair, ending either in quiet, unpublicized failure or in a noisy claim of success that fell apart under more careful scrutiny.” Despite public accolades, Tough reveals that both the Khan Academy partnership and Hoxby’s packets had minimal effect on student outcomes. What’s more, SAT score distributions have become increasingly unbalanced, based on family income. He also points out the Board’s fiscal motivations: one of the motives for the 2016 SAT makeover was an attempt to stymie rival company ACT Inc. from gaining market share as it was an attempt to create an equitable exam.

Financial considerations govern college admissions as well. Gone are the halcyon days of admissions officers huddled around a table savoring the merits of individual applicants. Soaring application numbers at respectable institutions and U.S. News & World Report rankings  — which figure SAT and ACT scores of admitted students into their calculations – have forced college admissions to become an increasingly data driven business. Quants and private consultants with predictive analytics skills now help university administrators maximize yields as well as speculate on tuition revenue from incoming students. Unfortunately, however, this set-up often entails admitting “CFO Specials” – wealthy and underachieving children with high standardized test scores – in lieu of more accomplished but less solvent students. A troubling consequence is that public flagship universities are increasingly admitting higher paying out-of-state  (or out-of-country) applicants to maintain buoyant budgets. There has also been an explosion of for-profit universities that prey upon the financially feeble by serving up false promises of career advancement.

What makes The Years That Matter Most so compelling is the tapestry of heartrending vignettes Tough brings into his narration. Readers meet KiKi Gilbert, an African American Princeton student who gradually drifted apart from her family after spending tenth grade living with them in a dilapidated motel room. They also meet Kim Henning, who, when unable to obtain the necessary financial or emotional support for her college choices, moved away from her family in Taylorsville, North Carolina to work, gain residency in South Carolina, and eventually attend Clemson. These are but two of many cases that underline a hard truth: “upward mobility is not simply a question of earning more money than one’s parents.  It is also, for many people, a process of cultural disruption: leaving behind one set of values and assumptions and plunging into a new and foreign one.  It can be disorienting and emotionally wrenching, shattering family ties and challenging deeply held notions of identity and purpose.”

Personalized intervention can ease the process. At the University of Texas at Austin, David Laude’s efforts to improve four-year graduation rates – especially of black and Latino students – have paid off through summer programs, increased mental health support, additional faculty advisers, and peer mentoring. Many poorer students struggle in mathematics; in response, professor Uri Treisman has crafted small, student-led workshops to talk through calculus problems. Meanwhile, DePaul and Trinity Universities have adopted test-optional admissions policies, welcoming diligent students with lower test scores in spite of the fact that this irks testing agencies and risks a fall in the college’s ranking. Even among the upper crust, where cultural disruption is far less pronounced, private consultant Ned Johnson charges $400/hour to help well-off children prepare for college through individual mentorship and emotional support.

With journalistic flair, The Years That Matter Most brilliantly shows how, in terms of college opportunities, the scales of justice tilt in favor of the wealthy.  For Tough, we are at a critical juncture: “many of the most fundamental questions about what kind of country the United States will become – like whether it will be a land of opportunity for all, or a land of privilege for the few – are playing out in the lives and decisions of the nation’s college students.” Only when we see college education as a matter of collective investment rather than private good can we push for meaningful change. Only when our politicians commit to increasing the number of college graduates in America will we see greater numbers of diverse students on campus. Luckily, there are precedents for such actions: the years following the GI bill and the three decades between 1910 and 1940 witnessed a public push to expand access for working-class families in college and high school, respectively.

I especially admire Tough’s mettle in exposing unflattering aspects of the college admissions machine. Building on the research of Henry Gates Jr., Lani Guinier, and Doug Massey, he exposes how African American students have long been a doubly marginalized group at select Ivy League colleges. Their presence on these campuses does not mirror their proportion in the broader American population. And many black students are either children of wealthier African or Caribbean immigrants or mixed-race couples. Equally disturbing is how certain colleges favor admitting Pell grant students who fall just below the federal income threshold to qualify (while selecting few students with incomes just above the cutoff and few well below it).  In selecting the highest income Pell-eligible students, colleges could boast of a high “Pell percentage.” This is sleight-of-hand: it appears as if these institutions are embracing applicants from the underclass, but they are still not admitting their most needy applicants.

But if the socioeconomic issues Tough raises are uncomfortable, his look at research fraud reveals downright sordid activity. He explains how the College Board decided to publish a 2017 paper written by in-house researchers claiming that privileged students benefit most from high school grade inflation, thus encouraging less advantaged students and college admissions officers to rely more heavily on the SAT in college applications.  The authors contradicted their own data in the paper, aiming to promote their company’s product while quashing a revenue-threatening, test-optional admissions trend. Worse yet, their doctored findings were echoed by major news outlets such as USA Today, the Atlantic, and Education Week.

Despite Tough’s audacity, however, I have concerns.  My main critique is that his thesis hinges on the examples he has chosen to dramatize. For less privileged youth, it is true that “mobility in the United States today depends, in large part, on what happens to individuals during a relatively brief period in late adolescence and early adulthood.” But sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton have shown that affluent female students persevered through a large Midwestern research university by socializing and networking in lieu of pursuing intellectual rigor. Worse yet, the university offered more support to these students than less advantaged ladies who strove for academic success.  More generally, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have questioned to what degree universities genuinely foster critical thinking in students. A Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) exam administered to pupils in their first semester and at the end of their second year of college forced its authors  to conclude that many students at a wide range of universities do not improve critical thinking or written communication skills. A considerable number of students do not take classes with lengthy writing assignments and avoid spending the time needed to complete homework assignments. Nevertheless, economists overwhelmingly agree that individuals who have completed college earn more than those who have not. This begs a crucial question: is there something intrinsically important about a college education, or does merely holding a baccalaureate diploma suffice as evidence of cognitive aptitude?

Author Paul Tough. Photo:

Ironically, Tough himself never finished college – he quit twice, unable to find meaning in his studies.  Nevertheless, he succeeded as a twenty-year-old intern at Harper’s Magazine and, after a string of editorial and journalism gigs, joined the New York Times. Tough, like many of the students he interviewed, lacked clear guidance. Advising has long been inadequate in tertiary and especially secondary education; even students at reputable high schools frequently bemoan their counselor’s lack of expertise and sizable student load. A similar case can be made for financial aid assistance. Following individual cases up close as Tough does can obscure awareness of larger trends that hinder collegiate success: whether it be student counseling, financial aid, or developing personal interests.

One could also argue that the years that matter most precede those in college. Ever since the late Jean Anyon articulated the notion of a “hidden curriculum,” scholars have examined how schools routinely enculturate primary and secondary students based on their socioeconomic background. Working class students, taught to follow procedures, behave much differently than their middle-class counterparts, who are encouraged to reason, or elite children who are inspired to be creative or to communicate their privilege with “ease.” Similar categories of training occur at home.  As sociologist Annette Lareau has shown, middle class parents – unlike their working-class counterparts – actively nourish their children’s abilities through “concerted cultivation.” Invitations to take part in reasoned dialogues and negotiations, along with organized leisure activities, teach middle-class children how to navigate the bureaucratic structures necessary for adult success. Lareau’s student Jessica McCrory Calarco enhances this picture, insisting that middle-class students learn at home how to secure advantages for themselves in primary school by seeking assistance, asking for accommodations, and soliciting attention in class. Of course, psychologists know that early childhood development strongly influences personality; cognitive capacity is largely fixed by age ten. Is it any surprise that Tough’s academically accomplished protagonists have at some point had active intervention – either from family, mentors, or extracurricular programs?

These concerns, however, do not detract from Tough’s goal. In a world where fake news abounds and the sheer accumulation of information paralyzes, it is very easy to become apprehensive about realities of the American college experience. This is compounded by growing competition for college entry, persisting pedagogical and standardized testing debates, and soaring tuition. (It will be interesting to see in what ways the post-pandemic world shakes this situation up.) With a discerning eye, Tough adeptly describes the collegiate milieu, separating the valuable from the superficial. Any reader intent on learning how college affects students, families, academicians, and American culture ought to relish this riveting and readable book.

Justin Grosslight is an intellectual interested in examining the connections between technology, society, and business. He has published academic articles in mathematics and history of science, book reviews on a wide range of topics, and several vocabulary development and test preparation books. Along with extensive travel, Justin enjoys entrepreneurial pursuits and provides personalized education counseling to students in America and Southeast Asia.

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