In his new book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, education writer Paul Tough dismantles the myth of college as a pure meritocracy. Instead, he makes the case that the U.S. higher education system reinforces class and racial inequalities.
Research shows that a college degree, especially from an elite institution, increases one's chances of social mobility. But the people who could most benefit — low-income, first-generation, and black and Hispanic students — often don’t get those opportunities.
Tough profiles Kiki Gilbert, an African American student from a poor family who is accepted to Princeton University after years of hard work. When Gilbert arrives on campus, she realizes it is almost impossible to find students from similar backgrounds.
That’s because, according to research by economist Raj Chetty, just 2.2% of Princeton’s students come from the bottom fifth of the income distribution. Seventy-two percent come from the top fifth of the economic ladder. It’s a similar story at other highly selective schools.
Tough writes that these numbers demonstrate the paradox at the heart of higher education.
"The American system of higher education has the potential to lift young people from poverty to the middle class, and from the middle class to affluence. But in reality, for many young Americans, it functions as something closer to the opposite: an obstacle to mobility, an instrument that reinforces a rigid social hierarchy and prevents them from moving beyond the circumstances of their birth."
Outside of the Ivy League, Tough says many public universities, especially flagships, have become less accessible to poor and first-generation students due to financial pressures. He says most state governments (including Wisconsin) have cut public education funding since 2001, so those schools are relying more on students who can pay full tuition.
"We have really changed the way we finance public education in this country," Tough says in an interview with WUWM. "It’s not very public anymore. We are putting more and more of the burden on individual students and families, which means tuition is going up, debt is going up, and the public investment is going down."
Tough highlights one public university that stumbled upon a strategy to maintain a socioeconomically diverse student body. The University of Texas-Austin is required by legislative mandate to automatically accept the top 6% of students from Texas high schools.
"You get this class that shows up each fall in Austin that is very different than the classes at other flagships. They’re much more diverse," Tough says. "They don’t look at standardized test scores, they have to admit students in the top 6% (based on GPA) alone."
One of the students who benefitted from that rule is Ivonne Martinez, a first-generation student and math enthusiast who Tough highlights in his book. Martinez didn’t get a standout score on the ACT, but her high school GPA was stellar, winning her admission to UT-Austin. If she lived in another state, her ACT score may have precluded her from from a school like UT.
But most flagship schools, and elite universities in general, put significant weight on standardized test scores, which track closely with family income.
"Your SAT and your ACT scores … are a really good predictor of how much money your family has," Tough says. "So when institutions put a lot of emphasis on SAT and ACT scores in admissions, it makes it much more likely they’re going to admit a really affluent class."
Tough says despite discouraging inequities in higher education, there is hope. He says there is growing public pressure on schools to become more diverse. Many schools are going 'test-optional.' And he’s seen, at schools like UT-Austin, a new focus on supporting low-income and first-generation students to make it to graduation.
"If institutions decide to make admissions less dependent on test scores and more focused on real socioeconomic diversity, and at the same time they’re offering some basic supports for the first-generation and low-income students, you can not only have a more diverse class, you can have a more successful class," Tough says. "When that happens, higher education goes back to doing the job we established it to do, which is being an engine of social mobility."
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