Divided We Learn

OPINION: Do U.S. colleges reinforce or reduce inequality?

A reporter returns to college, after three decades away, to find out

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“When I decided to drop out of Columbia, nobody tried to stop me,” author Paul Tough says. “Columbia did not feel like it was their job to give me other options in life.”

It was December 1985, the end of his first semester of college. The 18-year-old Canadian decided to return north and continue his studies at the more affordable McGill University in Montreal. But after three semesters there, he quit college a second time.

“I was never a big fan of college. I never loved it,” Tough told me in a recent interview about his new book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.

Tough wasn’t sure if he could avoid returning to college and completing his degree, but one job led to another and, as he says, “I managed to never go back.”

Except now he has. For his new book, Tough spent the last six years studying American higher education in 21 states and interviewing over 100 students as well as parents, professors and admissions officers, among others.

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As his title suggests, the college years are vital to a young person’s future. Earn a degree and previously closed doors open. Drop out or don’t go and possibilities shrink. This has never felt truer than it does today, even if the proportion of adults (aged 25 to 64) in America with any postsecondary credential has never cracked 50 percent. The United States, at 45.7 percent as of 2016, lags behind Canada, Israel, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom on this measure.

But even if fewer than half of American adults are college graduates, earning a bachelor’s degree feels now like a necessity to many young people — because college is the new high school, practically obligatory for anyone who wants to get ahead, or at least not fall behind, in this globalized world.

In “sharp contrast to other ages and other cultures,” Tough writes, “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.”

For Tough, things seem to have worked out just fine, despite his lack of a college credential. After he left McGill, in 1987, he landed a job at Harper’s magazine in New York City. He was 20.

“I felt like the thing that I had been looking for in college — cool intellectual discussions, work that mattered — I felt like I got that at Harper’s,” Tough told me.

In an age when annual tuition increases routinely outpace inflation, some students, and especially some parents, find themselves asking: Is college worth it? It’s a simple question without a simple answer, Tough reminds us in The Years That Matter Most.

“It depends on who you are and where you go and what you take and how you do when you’re there and how much debt you amass along the way,” he writes. These are five hugely important variables. And even for students who attend the exact same institution — one variable — the other four factors depend entirely on the individual and his or her decisions and circumstances.

Tough’s book explores the real and terrifying idea that what you do (or don’t do) between the ages of 18 and 22 — or even 16 and 25 — profoundly shapes the course of your life. It’s no wonder that young people in this country seem to be suffering from unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression.

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I see the anxiety and the depression on a near-daily basis in my job as an academic advisor to Columbia undergraduates, many of whom seem to believe that a single grade can snuff out their lifelong dreams. Between 2013 and 2018, the percentage of undergraduates at U.S. colleges who reported feeling moderate to severe anxiety increased from 17.9 to 34.4 percent, according to a 2019 study co-authored by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

Over the same period, the percentage of students who reported experiencing severe depression more than doubled, from 9.4 to 21.1 percent.

I have a hard time convincing students, despite research on my side, that what subject they major in matters far less than they (and their parents) might imagine — and that what employers care about most are transferable skills, like critical thinking, that can be acquired in just about any field of study.

Tough’s book asks us to consider whether higher education in America is more an engine of, or an obstacle to, economic and social mobility. Based on his reporting, Tough thinks it’s more hindrance than help, serving to reinforce rather than reduce social stratification. But there’s also a lot of luck involved, which probably isn’t a good thing. Random chance, after all, tends not to motivate most people.

A “system of economic mobility based on luck — whether it’s the luck of which family and which neighborhood you’re born into, or the luck of what a particular admissions officer happens to see in your application on a particular day — is a system that is hard to believe in,” Tough writes.

If there’s an anti-hero to be found in Tough’s book, it’s what has long been called the “admissions industrial complex” — the organizations and processes that often determine who studies where. The College Board, which administers the SAT, figures prominently. (Note: The College Board is among the sponsors of The Hechinger Report.) So does U.S. News & World Report, the newsmagazine whose annual college rankings have an outsized influence on both high-school students and higher-education institutions. Admissions offices — along with their decisions and priorities — are also scrutinized.

“I feel like they [the College Board] have this kind of split personality, where there are a lot of people who work there who are really smart and committed to equity and want to figure out how to make the admissions system fairer,” Tough told me. “And then their financial model is based on getting as many people as possible to take the SAT, and getting institutions to take it as seriously as they can. And all the evidence seems really clear — not just now, but for a long time — that this a test that really correlates very highly with family income, and so that when colleges use the SAT as a key part of their admissions, they’re more likely to admit more rich kids and admit fewer poor kids.”

The College Board this week released a 7-page statement in response to Tough’s book, and then published a revised and expanded dissent on its website, ultimately saying that Tough “spins a false narrative that fundamentally misrepresents our mission, motivations, and impact.”

In its defense, the College Board cites two studies from May 2019 — the same month that Tough delivered to his editors the final changes to his manuscript. It seems difficult to find fault with Tough here, as he had been asking the College Board for five years to see data on whether the organization had succeeded in replicating results from a 2013 experiment by two prominent researchers, Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner. Hoxby and Turner’s research had suggested a simple $6 intervention could lead to more high-achieving, low-income students applying — and gaining acceptance — to selective colleges, where they were much more likely to get good financial-aid packages and graduate.

The College Board’s attempts to replicate the results failed. But it took the organization more than five years to acknowledge this fact.

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Tough’s book is most moving and memorable in its vivid portraits of promising programs, professors and students. There’s KiKi Gilbert, an African American student from a low-income family, who realizes that all of the adversity she’s overcome could be her ticket to the Ivy League. KiKi’s story is equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful.

“It was a story they [admissions officers] wanted to hear: the homeless teen who made good. So she told it, again and again,” Tough writes of KiKi. “And telling it made her feel sad and sometimes proud, but eventually mostly angry and more than a little cynical. The whole process began to feel transactional, like she was trading her pain for college admission offers and scholarship dollars. The worst year of her life had become a commodity.”

Princeton admitted her. “And then she got to Princeton, and the value of that commodity shifted. It suddenly felt like a liability, not an asset, like something someone might use against her.”

And then there’s David Laude, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who assumes the role of “graduation rate champion.” His kitchen-sink approach dramatically increases the school’s graduation rate in short order, from 51 percent in 2012 to 70 percent in 2018. Tough told me that he found Laude’s tactics neither revolutionary nor unique — which he saw as positive news because it meant they could be replicated elsewhere. It was as straightforward as figuring out — and then removing — all of the obstacles to student success, as well as showing each student that you care and that he or she belongs on campus.

Thinking back to how not a single professor or administrator seemed to care, or even notice, when he quit Columbia in 1985, Tough told me, “I would hope that that would be different now.”

Indeed.

This story about U.S. colleges and inequality was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter.

Justin Snider is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report. He is an assistant dean at Columbia University, where he also teaches undergraduate writing.

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Justin Snider

Justin Snider is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report. He is an assistant dean at Columbia University, where he also teaches undergraduate writing. Previously,… See Archive

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