The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks us by Paul Tough
If you are reading this, you are likely college-educated. You applied for, were accepted by, and attended a college for some period at some point in your life. I also assume most of you graduated from college. I cannot be sure how that process has changed your life, but I presume it is for the better. However, for thousands and thousands of students’ higher education is not a positive experience. College is a negative experience for many students. Each year over 19 million people attend a college or university in the United States. By journalist Paul Tough, this book takes a hard look at this college experience and especially its impact on low-income students.
According to the United States Census Bureau, about 17% of enrolled college students are classified as low-income or in the bottom two tiers of the socio-economic ladder. Overall, only 14% of low-income students will earn a bachelor’s degree or higher. Tough uses this information to ask if we all agree that college is a good thing, then why do we make it so hard for low-income students to access it? His book: The Years That Matter Most is an investigation into how the access and application process for higher education can derail students fast and furiously.
The bulk of the book focuses on testing requirements for most students. He explores the ACT and SAT on college admissions and their impact on low-income students and students of color. This testing disparity came under even more scrutiny during the Varsity Blues scandal of 2019. The idea is that even if the test were fairer, and the evidence is the tests are unfair for poor students, parents of means can also buy a better testing position. Tough spends a reasonable amount of time that even when the College Board admitted the lack of equality in testing access and success, the “fix” really didn’t help. While it did assist low-income students in achieving higher scores, the additional assistance helped wealthy students more. His solution is more test-optional ways to get into college. The California State system is moving to that model, and many more universities are likely to follow, but most will be regional or state universities and not highly selective colleges.
The second issue Tough reviews are the lack of information available to our students on how to get into college. The complex rules and policies make the application process hard to navigate. So much so that even when awarded an SAT or ACT score which would qualify a student for an Ivy League university, the student is far more likely to end up at a state college because of the problematic messaging. Each year around 30,000 students who could get into a highly selective college don’t. When surveyed, many identify two reasons why they don’t apply. The first is better information on what selective admissions means, the second is there are misconceptions on college affordability. For many students, see a price tag and give a hard pass.
The next major issue Tough points out is the lack of need-based financial aid to cover the cost of attendance. For many students in the middle and upper-middle-class income tiers, tuition discounting is expected as a way to get students on campus. What is listed is not usually what you pay. Tuition discounting goes for poor students as well. However, even a few thousand dollars in debt can be a scary proposition for people who have no money. And for many students, this is a dealbreaker. A few hundred dollars can make a big difference, but most students lack the knowledge of higher education to ask the right questions to the right person and miss out.
Another issue Tough uncovered was the lack of academic coaching for students. Low-income students respond well to having a person on campus they can trust for advice and guidance, but often we don’t offer that as early as we should. When a student is allowed to wander, they up the chances of losing their way. Losing one’s way is especially true of the students featured in the book. We get story after story of how one conversation could make all the difference through a hard-to-read narrative. It becomes heartbreaking.
There is also another issue Tough points out. The increasing pressure for universities to do more with less state help is taking its toll. For the government to expect universities to become fundamentally fairer, the state has to be fairer to the university. State funding has been depressingly low in many states. Couple this with increased costs and tuition restrictions, and you have a perfect recipe for denial of access. To ensure fairness then, the higher education playfield needs to be level. Many states take away that ability to level because of political reasons or lack of funding, and the cracks in the foundations are starting to show.
Higher education is not that it’s not valuable. A degree is. Who gets to access it and afford it makes this work so hard. While not every student who can go to Yale will the evidence is clear, when those students do, the overall success rate of poor versus affluent students is almost a tie. The same is true for lifetime earnings. Over time the low-income kid who attends an Ivy League school will make as much as their wealthy peer.
What does this mean moving forward? It can mean that time-poor students will often be relegated to for-profit colleges or no college because the information and access for students are not great. Lack of communication can lead to fewer of these students attending college. We have already seen the impact of COVID-19 on poor students. They were 25% less likely to enroll during 2020, duplicated in 2021. If that trend continues, then we have big problems.