The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes Us or Breaks Us
By Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019
375 pages $22.40
I am at this point convinced that upwardly mobile American parents’ backbreaking efforts to game our babies into the highest echelons of higher education is insanity. We should just collectively agree not to keep doing the same stupid thing year after year after year. Rather we should struggle as hard as possible against the magnetic inclination to participate. For this reason I was skeptical about upwardly mobile journalist Paul Tough’s new book, The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.
The title set me off. The years that matter most are ages 18 to 22 or so? Really? Not, say, those first three when a newborn baby is either cared for, loved, and fed or neglected, beaten and starved? The years wherein we are set up for the possibility of lives of relationship, or lives spent alienated from society?
But it seems that within our unimaginative national notion of “success,” relationship doesn’t merit, only merit — as defined by IQ and traditional academic effort — merits. The exclusive spirit behind our one-size-fits-all SAT test and quest for Harvard also pervades Tough’s book. A perfect score or bust. Admission to the best of the best or bust. Lifetime earnings in the tens of millions, or it’s not a career worth writing about.
Tough starts out enumerating the qualifications and discussing the research of his favorite sort of person, the “ridiculous overachiever” and Harvard professor Raj Chetty, which found that, “students who attend ultra-selective colleges are much more likely than other students to become very rich as adults.” Graduates of the Ivy-Plus college, meaning the Ivy League and similarly exclusive schools like MIT, University of Chicago and Stanford, have about a 20 percent chance of landing in the top 1 percent of wage earners in their thirties, with incomes of over $630,000 annually. Community college students have a one in three hundred chance, and students who don’t attend college have about a one in one thousand chance.
(I am always struck by the exceptions to this “rule” that surround me. My husband dropped out of community college and he makes, as a contractor, far more than what I could possibly make if I worked full-time in the teaching, writing or nonprofit fields, with my BA, MA, and MFA. He’s only the most obvious of many more examples in my immediate circles. Ironically, Paul Tough himself seems not to have completed a four-year degree. As far as I can tell he dropped out of college twice, which hasn’t hurt him any in the publishing industry.)
I was hoping Raj Chetty’s study results might be followed up somewhere later in the book by those of a 2010 Princeton study, which found that emotional well-being is associated with income, but only until an earner reaches $75,000 a year, above which the money accumulated doesn’t correlate to one’s happiness. They weren’t.
If money can’t buy happiness, and the “top 1 percent of wage earners” are the ones currently causing most of the world’s problems, then why is that where anyone should train their children’s sights and admiration? Doesn’t that phrase put a bad taste in our mouths by now? My hunch is that the time for this book has passed. Perhaps four innocent years ago or so, before #Metoo, before the college cheating scandal, before Jeffrey Epstein, before the exposure of Purdue Pharma, before our self-professed billionaire president/mobster, The Years that Matter Most wouldn’t sound better suited to an advice book for new parents.
But I digress.
Apart from its overblown respect for the extreme credentials and wealth which in many cases are the results of the inequitable system he lays bare, Tough has provided, with The Years That Matter Most, an enumeration of the human cost of failing to nurture our national ideals. Our founding documents demand that we work to make any opportunity available to a rich American teen available to a poor American teen. Insofar as Tough shines daylight on the mechanisms by which the most privileged Americans consolidate their privilege through higher education and move us further from this aim, his new book does us all a service.
Firstly, the news of “diversity” has been greatly exaggerated. The best schools — meaning the most selective/exclusive — still accept the whitest and richest students. There are now 38 highly selective colleges that have more students representing the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent of income distribution. Surveys of incoming Harvard University freshman between 2013 to 2017 showed that each new class was richer than the last one. In 2013, 15 percent came from families with incomes under $40,000, and 14 percent came from families with incomes over half a million per year. Four years later, the proportion of the class from the under 40,000 had fallen to 12 percent, while 17 percent of freshmen came from the ultra-rich group. On top of that, more than one third of the Harvard class of 2022 is (still!) accepted due to family legacy.
What happened to Harvard’s much-touted offer of free tuition to any incoming student with a family income less than $65,000? As outlined by Tough, that policy has resulted in just a few dozen, not many thousands, of low-income students matriculating.
For the most part high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to highly selective colleges. Many under-reachers live outside of cities, are white, and attend smaller high schools. I have seen this phenomenon play out at Great Barrington’s Monument Mountain High School. Honors track low income students are more likely to apply to schools less selective than their grades and scores would recommend.
Why is this? Tough brings in the work of Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby, with Sarah Turner, to explain. About a decade ago, they sent out thick packets of information on admissions and graduation rates and SAT fee waivers to 40,000 low-income families of high-achieving kids in smaller towns and cities around the country. They included data showing that selective schools are often less expensive than state schools because they have more money to give away. Then they monitored college admission rates among both that group and a control group. Their study found that 54 percent of those who’d been provided with the packets were accepted to selective schools, while only 30 percent of controls were accepted.
Small town, high-achieving poor kids, the pair concluded, suffer from an “information deficit,” which their packets filled. No one in their families had attended, or perhaps heard the name of, a selective college. There’s no expectation expressed to kids at home, as there is around more privileged dinner tables, to “Get into the best school that will take you.”
Second, there’s the “inequality dividend.” The richest schools in the country —Harvard (whose endowment is larger than the GDP of over half of the countries on earth), Yale, Princeton, etc. — still, counter-intuitively, attract the most generous alumni and non-alumni donations, overflowing their overfull cups. By 2013, each elite college held an average endowment per student of over $1 million as opposed to an endowment of only $35,000 per student at a typical college. As Tough describes the situation, “Among the donor class, there is no apparent desire to level this playing field by steering their donations away from wealthy institutions, serving wealthy students, and toward those with greater need. In fact, at elite institutions, contributions are pouring in at a faster rate than ever.” A few years back, Harvard set a fundraising goal of $6.5 billion in five years. It raised more than nine, in less than half that time.
Some of those donors allocate their gifts toward financial aid, often with names scholarships. Most of them want their names on buildings. Another example of modern-day philanthropists’ vain betrayal of philanthropy’s beautiful connotations, suggested by the original Greek meaning of “loving and useful to mankind.” Many of today’s donors would perhaps add, “as long as it also boosts my personal brand.”
Third, Tough takes us inside the sausage-making that is the college admission process, referred to in the book as the “admissions industrial complex.” It’s a sleazy place where everyone is “hustling product.” “Glengarry Glen Ross, the campus version.” The best schools seduce the best students, the second best seduce the second best, and everyone seduces those who can pay full fare.
Singularly unhelpful in the pursuit of a more equitable system is the algorithm used by the US News and World Report’s ranking of the country’s colleges and universities. The public is invited to dismiss schools, for instance, based on the amount spent per students, thus incentivizing those schools to prioritize income generation over every other consideration. “If you reduce costs, your ranking falls….You need to keep on admitting lots of rich kids.”
This has led to a situation where today, even at the country’s top public universities, very few students have family income levels low enough to qualify them for Pell grants. At the University of Virginia, only 13 percent of the student body is eligible, a lower rate than at Princeton or Trinity College. At the University of Michigan, it’s 16 percent, and, “At the University Alabama, the flagship public institution of one of the poorest states in the nation, the median family income for undergraduates is now higher than at Bryn Mawr College.”
The most equitable approach, Tough found, is the one taken by the state college and university system in Texas, which accepts any student – rich or poor — from any high school in the state — rich or poor — who graduates in the top 10 percent of their class.
Then there’s the SAT, arguably the most surefire way to cheat a system built to be cheated. Meet Ned Johnson, $450 per hour tutor extraordinaire, who can raise your rich kid’s test score one hundred points by perfectly legal means. The tricks Ned makes his living off of explain why there are now over 900 colleges and universities that have gone “test-optional,” and make me wonder why we keep the test at all. Even as an SAT test taker myself back in 1989, I could sense that it was not primarily about a) my native smarts b) my education level or c) whether or not I knew how to solve math problems. It seemed to be about 20 percent knowledge, and 80 perent about whether or not someone had made you aware of the short cuts, and then how much practice you had gotten mastering them.
Ben, a high-achieving, low-income, Barack Obama look-alike student quickly gets wise to the game as presented by Ned Johnson: “Once you realize that there are loopholes and backdoors to the test, it loses its value.”
I’d like to go further and invite us to replace “test” with “the whole elite higher education charade.”
What demands the most attention, but gets the least from Tough, is how, other than in selective, four-year colleges, the bulk of our young adults are spending the years that matter so much. In 2017, more than 80 percent of our college students were enrolled in schools that accept more than 50 percent of applicants, while only .8 percent were enrolled in the schools that take fewer than one in 10 applicants. He introduces us to one of the many, Orry, who lives in Taylorsville, North Carolina.
Orry repeated his freshman year of high school. He graduated 388 out of 389 in his high school class. He wanted to join the Marines but had a problematic drug and alcohol history. The Navy didn’t want him because of a tattoo on his neck. He lost a decent job at a steel wire factory for missing too many days of work. Catawba Community College offered an Associate’s Degree in Welding. But the school, like so many other public colleges, operated on a starved, shoestring budget, and his required English class was only offered online. He did not have internet at home.
Alongside the one percent’s investment in the already richest institutions of higher education, the ones that serve less than one percent of the American young adult population, is a general refusal to support the non-elite higher education that is the best promise for the vast majority of them.
So the most pressing question is: What could we do to help the millions of Orrys succeed? Most critically, his community could have prioritized the funding of public higher ed, and pushed for and encouraged school/industry collaborations. His school could have provided drug counseling and his criminal justice system alternative punishments. He could have been offered (and supported to choose) high school classes that taught the “soft skills” of professional behavior in the workforce. He could have been set up with a trades apprenticeship in high school so he could have gotten out of the building where he’d found only failure, gotten his hands dirty, and discovered his interests and skills and weak spots earlier. He could have gotten much of his mistake-making out of the way at 15, instead of at 23, when he had two kids, and the stakes were so much higher. As it is, without any of that, he’s likely to work at minimum wage jobs for the rest of his life.
Those are my thoughts on Orry, not Tough’s. He does not subscribe to the national shift toward teaching the skilled trades and seems to be using Orry as a cautionary tale against would-be welders. His main reason for dismissing that profession is that, on average, it tops out around $63,000 per year. He does not point out that $63,000 is $10,000 more than North Carolina’s median income. He also does not point out that a similar field — plumbing — tops out at close to $100,000. Tough suggests one of the reasons certain sectors of the governing class are pushing for more welders is that they’ve never met one. My husband has. He says of him, “He’s semi-retired, but still gets lots of work because there’s no one coming up to take his place.”
The New York Times assigned their review of The Years that Matter Most not to an educator, but to memoirist Tara Westover, whose memoir Educated has been on the bestseller list for 84 weeks and counting. Westover has a doctorate from Cambridge, and from that lofty perch joins Tough in making the sort of sweeping but dubious pronouncements that knowledgeable people whose human capital holds great value love to make. “We live in a knowledge economy, and human capital has never been more valuable.”
But do we? And has it?
It looks from where I sit, in a semi-rural, resort area of Massachusetts, like our hands are still in high demand.
Not just in my town, either. A quick Google search for “fastest growing careers in Massachusetts” yields a list of the top 10 growth industries. Only one appears to call for a college degree.
In 2009 I read Disrupting Class, which predicted that 50 percent of high school classes would be taught online by 2019. That felt right at the time, and I repeated the prediction to everyone I knew. But in 2018, only about a third of high school students took even one class online, and as Orry discovered, it’s not necessarily an improvement on brick and mortar classrooms.
In a similar vein, I wonder if the “knowledge economy” idea feels true to those who are in it, who place a premium value on elite higher education, and on the ideal of reaching the top one percent. On a definition of success that translates to getting as close as you can to winning whatever exclusive race you’re running.
I know that’s how Paul Tough defines success because I heard him say so. It was 2012, and I’d just read How Children Succeed. As I was struggling at the time to teach “College Prep” level English to a class full of Orrys, I was hungry to hear more about how success might be defined so that my kids might be able to partake of it, too.
We were a large crowd at Amherst High School. During the Q and A a tall, African American student with glasses asked, “How do YOU define success?”
I sat up straighter and leaned in. Without skipping a beat, Mr. Tough replied, “These days I define it by where my book is on The New York Times bestseller list.”
I slumped back in my seat. I imagine the kid asking the question did too.
Today, I noticed a bestseller. It’s a new podcast that in about a week has shot up to number 11 on iTunes most popular list. “Borrowed Future” is about how young people’s lives are being crushed and curtailed by college loan debt. The first student profiled, who ended up sleeping in his car at 19 due to his debt burden, goes on a rant that sounds eerily salient. “I just did what everyone called normal…normal, trying to impress my friends and go to the same school my friends were going to…I was tired of being normal, I was ready to be different. You don’t have to be normal to be successful.”