The years that matter the most

Subtitle: How college makes or breaks us

Author: Paul Tough

Year of Publication: 2019

How I found out about this book: People magazine

I seem to be drawn to books that illuminate higher education. Maybe it is because it is my line of work. Maybe it is because my own college experience was so sorry, I want to learn about it how it could have been different. That is why I picked up this book. I thought it was going to be something else.

In ten short years my son will be college age. From vicarious learning through a friend who did a degree in higher education administration, I have come to understand that, contrary to popular belief, we do not leave high school, at age 18, as fully formed people. Quite the contrary: the college years, young adult years, are pivotal for identity formation. Apparently there is an entire field of study on this process. Based on my own experience, which was solely about academics, I would even beg to differ that academics are secondary to the psychological development that can and should take place during the college years. I picked up this book because I thought it was going to illuminate that phase of human development.

As mentioned previously, when I was in high school, I had zero guidance in selecting a college and instead relied on name recognition and perceived prestige only. Through self-study, I have come to learn about the range of college options that are available in this country that truly transform lives. (See: Loren Pope.) Oftentimes these options are overlooked for sheer lack of information or due to the perceived superiority of name-brand schools.

At the same time, over the course of my observations through this life, I have met many successful people who went to colleges that I have never heard of. I have also seen people who have gone to name-brand schools who don’t particularly shine. I concluded that it doesn’t really matter where you go to college.

On it’s face, that is true, for most of us.

Attending the same college eliminates almost all of the advangages that those who grow up with family wealth have over those who grow up in poverty…Attending an elite college seems to produce a greater economic benefit for students who grow up poor than it does for students who grow up rich…If you are a poor kid, though, attending an Ivy Plus college rather than no college is truly life-changing. It increased your odds of making it into the top income quintile by a factor of fourteen.

In translation: for well-off students, it doesn’t really make a difference in your life trajectory where you go to college, what I had observed. But for the hard-working yet disadvantaged youths who manage to do well in high school despite the odds, the more elite a school they go to, the better the outcome for their social mobility. The problem, as defined by the author’s extensive research laid out in vivid character descriptions that kept me on the edge of my seat, is that the higher education system holds back at almost every step of the way, the people they could be helping the most.

From standardized tests, to different cultural backgrounds and lacking support systems, disadvantaged students face obstacles at every step of the way. It boils down to economics, to boil it down: universities want rich (usually white) students to fill their classrooms because these paying students fill their coffers. And why do these universities need that money? Because we as a society have decided that education should not be publicly funded. We believe that if you work hard enough, you will find a way. Let’s just throw in all the extra obstacles we can in your path to make you prove yourself, because…individualism. Got it?

It can start with the SAT. The College Board engages in fuzzy math to suggest that their standardized test does a better job at predicting college performance than high school grades. This assertion hits close to home for me because of my abysmal SAT score. I never scored more than 1000 points which, according to the College Board, predicted a mediocre performance in college, despite a respectable high school record. I resented the low expectations and worked really hard in college–just like I had always been used to in school–and graduated college summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa.

Universities can use this “predictive” quality of the SAT to exclude worthy students. Yet research shows again and again that given enough support, students who, through no fault of their own, attend less rigorous high schools, can also succeed with the right support. In example after example, the author describes the tireless work of higher education officials and faculty who prove that point. A lot of it is self-fulfilling prophecy. If you take a hard worker and tell them they will succeed, regardless of their background, then they end of succeeding.

Worthy students who have “deflated-discrepant SAT” scores, that is, lower test scores than their high school grades would suggest (like me), are denied places at elite universities, where the lives of disadvantaged students have the most to gain in their social mobility. In their place come less qualified students with the money to pay their way through a life whose outcome is all but assured no matter where they go to school.

In this country, we used to care. The GI Bill granted college access to returning World War II veterans. Many of these young men (and women) came from families with laborer backgrounds and were looked down on in college campuses. Nevertheless, these returning veterans jumped at the chance to learn and in graduating form college and often graduate school in droves, lifted themselves to a new social class for themselves and many succeeding generations. This educated generation no doubt contributed to the economic expansion of this US after World War II.

Marilyn vos Savant is on the record books for having the highest recorded IQ of anyone in the world. She once answered a question from a reader in her newspaper column of how to select students to enter school honors programs. Her answer: self-selection. Students who consider themselves honors material should go into honors classes because if they believe they are honors students, then they will become so. Expectations matter.

The returning veterans who utilized the GI Bill were not considered college material. It was feared they would dilute the value of the college experience with their working class backgrounds at a time when a college education was reserved for the elite. But those veterans proved everyone wrong. They did better than other students in their era because they wanted to be there. They selected themselves. And an education brought them and their descendants an improved quality of life.

I have personal experience of benefiting from the shift in social class college attendance allows. My mother came from an immigrant family of laborers. Out of 7 siblings, she was the only one to go to college and this education lifted her into a different economic class from which I, as her daughter, benefited in an academically-minded family. For me it was a given that I would go to college because it was now part of our social class. But it started with my mother, who grew up poor with the odds stacked against her .

Why, as a society, do we not believe that the lifting some lifts us all. Instead, the ideal of every man for himself is stronger than ever and this belief is polarizing us. I am not one to believe that everyone should go to college, that is not the right answer. Some of us would be better off doing a trade, but as the author points out, even Associates Degrees are college. Everyone who wants to seek the type of education they think they want should be helped in doing it. Because a society where more people have a stable employment and corresponding income is a stronger society all around. This is not charity. This is helping people help themselves lead independent, productive lives.

As I have mentioned before, for change to come about in the many unjust systems that abound, the entire culture needs to change. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I, on the other hand, am moved to try to my part to be part of the solution, even if that means in small ways. But as the author showed, there are many individuals who are doing just that and every movement starts small.


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