Colleges Reinforce Inequality Rather than Social Mobility, New Book Argues

Guidance counselors who only steer you toward community college. University recruiters who never visit your high school. Relatives who are ambivalent or even hostile about your goals. If you’re a poor, smart student who dreams of changing your circumstances through higher education, the resistance you often face may make you wonder whether the system is rigged against you.

“It felt like they were trying to hide education from me,” one poor Texan student, a child of immigrants, told journalist Paul Tough.

Who “they” are and why they’re hiding education are among the questions Tough tackles in his new book, “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.” In the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal and news of middle-class parents giving up custody to get their kids more financial aid, it’s a timely reassessment of the promise that higher education offers everyone the same opportunity to move up in the world.

No big player escapes Tough’s critical eye, which gazes in turn on the SAT and the College Board, U.S. News & World Report rankings and test-prep tutors who charge $400 an hour. But the author also examines the system’s hidden components, like the enrollment management analytics that colleges use to predict exactly how many poor students they can admit while still meeting their tuition budget goals.

Throughout the book, Tough presents evidence in support of what he calls (on page 169) the iron law of college admissions: “The colleges with high average SAT scores—which are also the highest-ranked colleges and the ones with the lowest acceptance rates and the largest endowments—admit very few low-income students and very few black and Latino students.”

The corollary?

“Elite college campuses are almost entirely populated by the students who benefit the least from the education they receive there: the ones who were already wealthy when they arrived on campus.”

The book never loses sight of the people most affected by this system: aspiring college students. It’s filled with candid interviews of both rich students facing intense pressure from their parents to boost their test scores and high-achieving teens from poor families who are counting on college to sate their intellectual cravings. Many have “heartfelt, optimistic faith in the American system of higher education,” Tough writes—faith that the book suggests is misplaced.

“There’s a lot that needs to change in higher education to make it mostly fair and more effective,” Tough said in an interview with EdSurge. “As a journalist, I feel like my goal is to change people’s minds. It felt like changing lots of people’s minds was necessary.”

Questioning Social Mobility Efforts

Social mobility is a hot topic in education research. Scholars like Raj Chetty have recently gained access to big datasets that allow them to find patterns in how a child’s financial circumstances affect which college she attends, which in turn affects her future earnings. Another book on the topic, “The Merit Myth,” is due out in May from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

All this attention hasn’t been lost on the entities that hold significant sway over admissions, many of which have made changes in response to criticism. Colleges started to tout the number of Pell Grant recipients they admit. U.S. News cut college acceptance rates from its rankings methodology. The College Board teamed up with Khan Academy to offer free SAT test-prep classes designed to undercut the market for high-priced private tutoring.

Tough’s reporting suggests that such efforts have yielded positive PR, but not substantive improvements for disadvantaged students. For example, research shows some universities were “deliberately selecting the highest-income students they could find whose admission would still allow them to claim an impressive Pell percentage.”

Tough calls the College Board out in particular, claiming that it tried to deceive the public when some of its much-lauded efforts to help low-income students failed, perhaps to sustain its image. A College Board attempt to send college information packets to high-achieving students unlikely to apply to elite universities was quietly shelved, Tough writes. He accuses the organization of misrepresenting findings from the Khan Academy collaboration to make it seem like more disadvantaged students were using the tools than actually were. And he says it released misleading materials falsely suggesting that grade inflation, as opposed to tests like the SAT, disadvantages poor students and students of color.

The College Board declined an EdSurge interview request but offered a multiple-page rebuttal of Tough’s book, calling it a “one-sided narrative that badly misrepresents the College Board, our mission, and our impact.”

The organization says it did make the disappointing findings from the information packet study publicly available, but concedes the results were not shared “in a timely way along the way.” It also says that it shared findings that students whose parents are more highly educated spend on average more time using the Khan Academy practice videos. And the College Board defends its press materials about grade inflation.

Even genuine attempts to provide equal opportunity sometimes fail to yield equal outcomes. That’s partly due to the fact that teenagers—young, inexperienced, sometimes unpredictable—are the ones making the big education decisions that will shape their “years that matter most.” So institutions including the College Board and many colleges have tried to use behavioral science to “nudge” students in certain directions, to mixed results.

Still, Tough told EdSurge, it’s important to try.

“There’s a certain degree to which students need to take responsibility for themselves, but there’s an unequal education system starting early on. There are all kinds of ways the system can and should level that playing field,” Tough said. “It’s not enough just to have information out there. We need to go out and get education to low-income students.”

New efforts purporting to support poor students emerged this summer. The College Board unveiled Landscape, an effort that provides socio-economic context for a student’s SAT scores. U.S. News on Monday published a new ranking of colleges that excel in social mobility.

“It’s good those institutions that have in the past contributed to inequities are doing something to try to moderate those inequities. I feel like we should take these things seriously but also look with a critical eye,” Tough said. “It’s important to look underneath the hood, look carefully at the data and how it affects things.”

Race and Class

In focusing on the economic implications of elite college admissions, the book largely avoids exploring whether the actual education that elite and other colleges offer differs substantially, although it does point out that elite colleges spend far more per student on instruction and advising.

The book’s suggestion is that what students learn in class is almost beside the point. Certainly learning to think critically, conduct research and craft sophisticated arguments will help Ivy League students succeed in the knowledge economy, Tough says, but his book argues that what differentiates elite campuses from others is the degree to which they confer cultural capital and connections.

This can be a confusing and disappointing realization for first-generation and poor students who believed their braininess alone would guarantee them success in college and beyond. Tough quotes students who resent expectations that they make small talk with professors and mingle in certain social circles because they want to earn their achievements the “right” way, through hard academic work.

Black students are underrepresented at elite schools, making up 8 percent of the student body at many Ivies despite accounting for 15 percent of high school graduates. It’s roughly the same gap as in 1980, a New York Times analysis found. The odd consistency of that figure leads Tough to consider a serious allegation articulated in 2017 by Shaun Harper (minute 27:30), executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California: that elite institutions may be colluding to cap their numbers of black students.

“We’re definitely not going to get any colleges to admit this is a real quota,” Tough said. “The fact that it’s so consistent, I think indicates something—it’s not entirely clear what it indicates, but it indicates something.”

Whatever the cause, being underrepresented at top-tier schools limits black students’ social mobility. And even those who gain acceptance may feel uncomfortable at highly selective institutions, Tough reports, not because they can’t do the work, but because they’re alienated from the dominant culture.

The book does not discuss historically black colleges and universities, which research shows often have better graduation outcomes and more supportive environments for black students. But it does point to Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago, a new two-year institution that provides intensive social services to poor students of color, as a possible model to emulate.

Poor white students also have a harder time taking advantage of the social mobility that elite schools promise. A study by economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery found that high-achieving, low-income, white students, many from rural areas, are relatively unlikely to apply to or attend selective colleges. That could be because they lack information about these institutions, Tough says, or their decisions may be influenced by increasingly negative attitudes Republicans have about colleges.

“There’s really important questions about what is going on with rural white students not taking advantage of opportunities and why those ideas have changed so drastically,” Tough told EdSurge.

Finding Solutions

After all his reporting, Tough said he has concluded that “there is no one player, one silver bullet, who can change everything” wrong with college admissions.

But his book does offer some suggestions:

• Elite schools that don’t rely on tuition dollars (and therefore can afford it) should admit more poor students than they do.

• More institutions should make SAT and ACT test scores optional to give poor students a better shot at gaining entry.

• Governments should recommit tax dollars to public colleges and embrace the notion that “collective public education benefits us all.”

Even people who don’t normally get much say in admissions decisions can advocate effectively for change, Tough argues.

The book relates the story of what happened when Trinity College changed its practices to try to admit more high-achieving poor students: its U.S. News ranking dropped. Yet most of the faculty in the school’s English department responded by sending a letter to the Trinity board of trustees calling for continued support for the new admission standards. Why? Because they’d noticed their classes had better students, full of “intellectual curiosity, openness of mind and spirit, and genuine will to engage with their peers.”

“The main constituencies—students, faculty and alumni—when they can speak up about that, counteract the pressure,” said Tough, “I think that can play a huge role.”