Topics / Student Success

Are Colleges Fulfilling the Promise of Social Mobility?

A new book from Paul Tough takes a hard look at the socioeconomic barriers to entering college, staying at college, and graduating from college

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us | Paul Tough | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 390 pp. | 2019 | ISBN 978-0-544-94448-0

KiKi Gilbert will be the first in her family to graduate from college, but her path to and through Princeton University has been riddled with obstacles. After being uprooted several times throughout her childhood, KiKi landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, for her sophomore year of high school. Her family of five took up residence in the Arlington Suites, a low-budget motel astutely chosen by her mother for its proximity to the academically rigorous Myers Park High School. That year, KiKi found herself sitting in the bathroom each night, typing her homework assignments on a cracked phone while her family slept in a shared single room.

KiKi’s hard work was undertaken in pursuit of a brighter future, with the hope that a college degree would serve as her springboard. Her faith that a college education could lift her family out of poverty reflects an American ideal that emerged in the second half of the 20th century when veterans returning from World War II availed themselves of the free education provided by the GI Bill. As the country increasingly shifted toward a knowledge economy, a college education became a reliable pathway to a better life.

Today’s society is characterized by vast disparities in wealth and opportunity that create obstacles to college access and completion for many students. In fact, research shows that affluent college students are significantly more likely to earn a college degree than their less wealthy peers.


Today, the picture is more complicated. Educational attainment and future earnings are more tightly connected than ever: college graduates earn 84 percent more on average than nongrads.

However, today’s society is characterized by vast disparities in wealth and opportunity that create obstacles to college access and completion for many students. In fact, research shows that affluent college students are significantly more likely to earn a college degree than their less wealthy peers. One study found that among enrolled college freshmen, nearly 90 percent from the top income quartile will earn a degree by age 24, whereas only about 25 percent of students from the bottom half of the income distribution will do the same. This data suggests that the promise of social mobility through higher education is not being fulfilled for all students.

This is the central issue of Paul Tough’s latest book, The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, and his analysis suggests that, while college may work for some, the system is not functioning as a reliable engine of social mobility for all. Grounding his book in national research and illuminating it with individual student experiences, Tough presents a compelling narrative about both the structural deficiencies of America’s higher education system and the personal circumstances that complicate college access and success for many young people. 

The Years that Matter Most is most engrossing, and often heart-wrenching, on those pages that recount the lived experiences of young people. On the first page, we are introduced to Shannen Torres, a senior at a public high school in Harlem anxiously awaiting an admissions decision from the University of Pennsylvania, her dream college. Like KiKi, Shannen believes that an Ivy League education is her ticket into the middle class, and she has worked hard to get there. When her rejection email comes just a few pages later, the reader feels a kind of empathetic indignation as Shannen experiences profound heartbreak. Shannen’s devastation is not only a response to personal rejection but also recognition that her opportunity for social mobility has been lost: “… as far as she could tell, there was no room for error in the new system of American class mobility. Young people from her corner of the Bronx didn’t often get second chances.” If the system really worked, how could it not work for someone like Shannen?

Some version of this question is implicit in each of the stories Tough shares, which interweave to form a coherent narrative about the structural forces that have come to dictate college admissions, enrollment, and experiences in recent years. While a student’s academic merit is not unimportant, Tough leads us to conclude that it is the interaction between a student’s luck — including the student’s socioeconomic status — and these broader systemic realities that is at least equally important in determining the student's access to and success in college.

Shannen’s experience of rejection is soon countered by her acceptance to Stanford University, where she had applied as an afterthought. While the news is welcome, it is also confusing. To be accepted by one elite institution a mere 24 hours after rejection from another lent credence to a friend’s words of comfort from the previous day: “It's all about luck.”

Students who lack family wealth are particularly susceptible not only to the apparent capriciousness of the modern-day college admissions process but also to the emphasis that process places on SAT and ACT scores. Tough devotes several pages to a discussion of test prep and its role in perpetuating unequal access to high-quality colleges, making real the persistent correlation between family income and student test scores. 

The primacy of test scores in the college admissions process, however, is just one element that helps to facilitate a “meritocratic system of selective advancement” that largely excludes low-income students from the country’s most selective institutions of higher education (institutions that, incidentally, tend to do the best job propelling their students up the socioeconomic ladder). If there are any holes in Tough’s narrative, it is the lack of explicit discussion of the myriad other discrepancies in student experiences throughout their early childhood and K–12 education. College admissions do not exist in a vacuum, and Tough’s earlier books, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (2012) and Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (2016), are helpful companions to this most recent release in illuminating the intersection of poverty and education.

Tough gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the “admissions-industrial complex,” a term that describes the precarious balancing act between admission of academically deserving students versus admission of high-income students who can pay the tuition necessary to keep the institution afloat.


The role of family wealth in college admissions is now part of a national conversation; Tough's primary contribution in The Years That Matter Most is to provide the potent stories and statistics that can advance that conversation further. But Tough also spotlights another, less often discussed, barrier to economic diversity on college campuses: the financial pressures that all but the most elite colleges have increasingly begun to face over the past few decades. Tough gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the “admissions-industrial complex,” a term that describes the precarious balancing act between admission of academically deserving students versus admission of high-income students who can pay the tuition necessary to keep the institution afloat.

In his profile of Trinity College, a selective liberal arts college in Connecticut, Tough paints a disillusioning picture of the impact this balancing act can have on student admissions and campus culture. Despite the best intentions of the admissions team, the financial pressures faced by the college necessitate the rejection of highly qualified, low-income applicants in favor of less qualified, high-income applicants. This results not only in less opportunity for those denied admission but also in a campus that is less welcoming to and supportive of the low-income students that it does serve.

Among the many emotional tales of individual student experiences, this section of The Years That Matter Most is perhaps the hardest to read in that it so starkly depicts the systemic barriers with which low-income students must contend in pursuit of social mobility through education. There are some exceptional students for whom the system can work, and Tough provides nuanced depictions of those students’ experiences, but there are so many more students, exceptional and otherwise, for whom college is not a tool but rather a barrier to social mobility. We meet some of those students in the pages of this book, but their relative underrepresentation in The Years That Matter Most is itself a poignant echo of their exclusion from educational opportunity in our society.

One of the most insightful aspects of The Years That Matter Most is the way Tough explores not just the interplay between economic circumstances and education but also the way that culture impacts a student’s college decision and experience. Tough writes, “Upward mobility is not simply a question of earning more money than one’s parents. It is also, for many people, a process of cultural disruption: leaving behind one set of values and assumptions and plunging into a new and foreign one.”

We get glimpses of this struggle in KiKi’s experience at Princeton where only 2.2 percent of students come from the bottom fifth of the income distribution. Unlike wealthier students, for whom college is generally a way to weave themselves more tightly within the fabric of their families, KiKi’s decision to attend college is one that tears at that fabric and strains her familial relationships. She struggles to reconcile her position as an Ivy League student with the harsh reality of her family’s continued poverty while simultaneously forging her own identity in an alienating environment. For example, she realizes her experience living at the Arlington Suites was a valued commodity when she wrote about it in her college application, but it is also one that leaves her socially stigmatized among her peers on the wealthy Princeton campus. The irony is not lost on her.

Like KiKi and Shannen, many of the students included in The Years That Matter Most have chosen to pursue a college degree because they believe it will be a pathway to a better life. Are they right? Does college still work?

Tough presents a complicated picture. KiKi and Shannen have overcome myriad obstacles to access two of this country’s most elite institutions. Their stories seem to validate the idea that students of all backgrounds can enter and succeed in those settings. At the same time, we understand these students to be exceptional, both in terms of their individual qualities and within the context of a larger system that is stacked against them.

And a system that only works for some students — students who are both exceptionally hard working and exceptionally lucky — is not a system befitting of a society that purports to believe in an American Dream linked to educational attainment. While students like KiKi and Shannen may continue to defy the odds, we must recognize the need to transform the system so that they don’t have to.

Marisa Siroka is a program analyst in the Education program at Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Alexandra Cox is a program assistant in the Education program.

(Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)