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Topics / Student Success

Paul Tough on the Crisis of American Higher Education

The best-selling author of a new book on American higher education looks at the many challenges facing students and universities today. Says Paul Tough: “We need to go back to an idea of public education that is cheap and also excellent.”

Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” hailed “The Years That Matter Most”: “Gorgeously reported. Vividly written. Utterly lucid. Paul Tough jumps skillfully between deeply engaging personal narratives and the bigger truths of higher education. The way he tells the stories of these students, it’s impossible not to care about them and get angry on their behalf.”

Preparing students for success in college and careers has long been a focus of Carnegie Corporation of New York. Despite meaningful progress, tremendous challenges and entrenched opportunity gaps remain. Acclaimed journalist, author, and speaker Paul Tough addresses these issues in his new book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.

On November 8, 2019, Tough sat for an interview at the Corporation’s New York headquarters with Sarah Darville, national editor and former New York bureau chief for Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization and Corporation grantee that was founded in 2013 to produce in-depth coverage of education at the local, state, and national levels.

Paul Tough’s other books include Whatever It Takes, the story of Harlem Children’s Zone, and How Children Succeed, which spent over a year on the New York Times best-seller list. He also contributes to many publications, including the New York Times Magazine.

Sarah Darville: When asked about the big-picture takeaway of your book you said, “The system really is unfair, and it’s not getting more fair. If anything, it’s getting less fair.” How did your reporting lead you there?

Paul Tough: In reporting my 2012 book How Children Succeed, I’d gotten inklings that the inequities I had written about in our school systems didn’t go away when students went to college — in fact, they seemed to get bigger.

Then more data came out. The big report was the Mobility Report Cards paper by the economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and colleagues in 2017. It showed that the most selective institutions were dominated by students from the top economic quintile, while students from the bottom economic quintile were almost completely absent.

For individual students, higher education still is a remarkable engine of social mobility. It does allow young people to change their lives more effectively than anything else. But in aggregate, the system is not working for low-income students and even puts barriers in front of them.

Darville: David Coleman, the College Board president, once suggested that when low-income students don’t apply or go to the most selective universities, they “betray themselves.” Is that a misconception?

Tough: When I started working on this book in 2013, one piece of research at the center of my thinking was a study by Caroline Hoxby and Chris Avery on low-income students with high test scores. They found that those students were not applying to and not attending the highly selective institutions that they arguably could have gotten into with good financial aid packages. So with another colleague, Sarah Turner, Hoxby sent information to tens of thousands of high school seniors to try to change where they attended college.

They found some powerful results from this relatively cheap intervention. So a number of institutions tried to expand on that. But they didn’t get the same positive results, and we still don’t quite know why. My guess is that it has something to do with student psychology. Some students find the idea of going to a highly selective “elite institution” a long way from home to be a daunting prospect, challenging their way of life, their way of thinking.

But it also has to do with the institutions. A missing piece of that experiment was the assumption that America’s most esteemed colleges and universities are dying to admit more low-income students. That’s not necessarily true. Those institutions have lots of other pressures on them, mostly financial. They are admitting high-income students in part because they need the tuition dollars.

Darville: This is something education journalists might reflect on, right? How might those institutions be pushed to open their doors?

Tough: Yes, there are a lot of powerful interests in higher education, and they all have particular narratives that they want in the public debate, sometimes truthful and sometimes not. That means we need a different kind of education journalism — one of the reasons I’m glad Chalkbeat is around. Finding out which interventions are working or not is a critical job for journalists and for everybody else.

The single data point most predictive of college success is a student’s high school grades. Adding a standardized test score produces a slightly better prediction. But family income is more highly correlated with SAT and ACT scores than with high school GPA. 
– Paul Tough


Darville: What are colleges getting when they look at high school GPA and other metrics, as opposed to SAT scores?

Tough: The single data point most predictive of college success is a student’s high school grades. Adding a standardized test score produces a slightly better prediction. But family income is more highly correlated with SAT and ACT scores than with high school GPA.

Some schools have gone test-optional and have chosen to stop demanding standardized test scores from their applicants. In Texas a couple of decades ago the legislature passed what is known as the Top 10 Percent Rule, which requires the University of Texas to admit students in the top 10 percent — now the top 6 percent — of their high school graduating class, no matter what their test scores are. And that leads to a very different kind of freshman class. I found this approach so interesting that I actually moved to Austin. I am now a Texan!

Darville: Tell us more.

Tough: At UT each fall you get a class of freshmen who are all Texans and all excellent students, but who have real disparities in their family background and the resources their high schools had. And they represent a much wider range of standardized test scores than you find at other states’ flagship state universities.

In the past, those disparities were accompanied by disparities in graduation rates. Like a lot of institutions, UT didn’t particularly see that as their problem. They saw their job as simply offering the education; the students who succeeded were meant to succeed and students who failed weren’t meant to be there anyway.

But a few years ago, UT decided to try to improve its four-year graduation rate. So a chemistry professor named David Laude was given the job of raising the rate from 50 percent to 70 percent in just a few years.

He succeeded. He did it by focusing mostly on first-generation students, low-income students, and students with relatively low SAT scores, those who often felt at sea and out of place when they got to Austin.

He introduced a summer orientation program before freshman year for first-generation students. He set up a freshman learning community to create a sense of belonging and offered campus internships in sophomore, junior, and senior years that helped to weave students more deeply into the fabric of the university. He called all this the kitchen-sink approach. It worked well for the students, and the ones who benefited most were the ones who had had the lowest graduation rates before.

One number is really important. The four-year graduation rate for UT students with the lowest SAT scores improved from 39 percent to 63 percent over five years.

Now, the standardized testing companies want you to focus on that 39 percent, because it justifies the use of test scores in admissions. It says if you admit people without looking at their test scores, some of them are only going to graduate at a 39 percent rate, which means they don’t belong there.

If you admit students with great GPAs — regardless of SAT scores — and give them some help, they will graduate at the same rate as everyone else. This gives us a different way to think about admissions.
— Paul Tough


But the 63 percent tells a different story. It says if you admit students with great GPAs — regardless of SAT scores — and give them some help, they will graduate at the same rate as everyone else. This gives us a different way to think about admissions.

Darville: In your book you follow one of those freshmen in a calculus class.

Tough: Yes. The professor I followed, Uri Treisman, is an amazing math educator who is trying to change the country’s ideas about math education. Every fall he comes back to Austin to teach freshman calculus — for Uri it’s a laboratory for his ideas.

His students primarily come from that top 6 percent of applicants — those who are automatically admitted to UT. They are mostly first-generation and low-income students, and he can see how challenging math provokes in them a real sense of self-doubt. So everything in his class is designed to create a sense of belonging, of growth and possibility.

In the book I follow one student in Uri’s class, Ivonne Martinez. She was born in Mexico and grew up in a low-income home in San Antonio. She graduated second in her high school class, but she never got great standardized test scores. She wanted to be a math major, but on the first day of Uri’s freshman calculus class she was surrounded by students who had received much better preparation in high school, and she felt totally out of place. She did poorly on her first couple of tests.

Uri and his teaching team were able to deliver messages to her explicitly and implicitly — in the math problems they gave her, the challenges they guided her through —which changed her perspective on her abilities. She ended up getting a great grade in the class and she is now a junior, a math major and tutoring in the same calculus class I watched her struggle through.

So for me Ivonne’s story is an example of how we are often bad at measuring potential early.

Darville: Do you see these ideas as a trend that might outweigh trends of cost-cutting?

Tough: It’s hard to draw clear lines. In recent decades, we the public have chosen to fund our public institutions less and less generously. So the obstacles are clearer there. In the student success realm, what I saw at UT was that when you change the mind of an institution — and that’s not easy — then things really improve.

Darville: Are there places where philanthropy can make a difference?

Tough: Well, the kind of money we need is beyond what philanthropic institutions can do. The big shift is the huge cuts in funding for public higher education. Since 2001, on average, states have cut that funding by 16 percent per student. Every other country is investing more in public higher education. And our economy needs more and better educated young college graduates. There is no good reason for cutting that funding except that we don’t want to pay more taxes.

Funding higher education the way we used to would change so much — the tuition students pay, the debt they go into. But philanthropy can’t and shouldn’t make that up; it should be public funding.

Philanthropy can play the role it often does, which is researching some difficult questions. Like, why are some students not succeeding? What messages can help a student like Ivonne succeed in a calculus class if she doesn’t have Uri Treisman for her professor? Why do certain students decide to apply or not to apply to certain colleges?

Darville: In the fall of 2018, Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University and the former governor of Indiana, argued in a Washington Post op-ed that we should pay close attention to SAT scores. “Accepting a high school A at face value and enrolling a student in a calculus course beyond his or her capabilities does the student a disservice by risking an avoidable failure.”

Tough: In many ways the student he was talking about was Ivonne. But that is definitely not the way she would see that class, as a disservice to her. It in fact changed her life. It made her a successful college student and now she’ll be a math researcher or a cryptographer or an engineer or a doctor because UT did take her high school A at face value. UT said failure is something you should sometimes risk, and that we as an institution can provide the resources and psychological support that will let you succeed in that class. Ivonne doesn’t want protection from failure; she wants the chance to prove herself.

Darville: Could high schools be doing more to help students get past these roadblocks?

Tough: Yes. We don’t have a great system of giving high school students a clear sense of what their options are. Like, “With your test scores and your GPA, your interests, your family’s finances, the landscape out there, here are five very different options for you that will lead to different outcomes.” Some schools and nonprofits are doing a good job, but for students those decisions are really difficult and not always clear.

Darville: Isn’t that just an argument for good counselors?

Tough: Yes, but it’s also about creating better transitions. Thinking of high school as the end of something made sense 100 years ago, but now if you stop at high school it’s very difficult to achieve a middle-class life. It should be a public responsibility to find pathways for young people to get from high school to something else.

Darville: Let’s get some questions from the audience.

Q: I’m Debbie Bial, president and founder of The Posse Foundation. Can you address what university presidents can do, and also the racism and bigotry that infiltrates these issues?

Tough: Yes, prejudice and bigotry and racism are one lens through which to see all this, and there’s a lot of that at play in college admissions.

But at the same time, there are many incentives that push universities toward admitting the same type of students they’ve always admitted. Admitting well-off and well-connected students helps with your bottom line, with your donors, with your alumni. It helps with your US News and World Report ranking. So what we really need to do is to shift that incentive structure.

Philanthropy can help with that. But so can alumni; so can students; so can trustees and faculty and members of that university community. They have the moral authority, and if they pressure those selective institutions — saying, Democratize your admissions, get rid of legacy admissions and early decisions, go test-optional — these are relatively easy shifts that institutions could make.

There should be clear, easy, and affordable pathways for high school graduates into a public higher education system, certainly for two years and arguably for four.
– Paul Tough


Q: I’m Bob Hughes from the Gates Foundation. We had somebody who applied for a job a year ago, from a four-year community college in the South. They said, “I’m so excited to be here because I never thought you would think of hiring somebody from a community college.” And that person has turned out to be an extraordinarily valuable member of our staff. You’re right to push higher ed to move forward. But there are extraordinary kids at community colleges, and we pass them up all the time because we are looking for people who look like us.

Tough: That’s a great point. There should be clear, easy, and affordable pathways for high school graduates into a public higher education system, certainly for two years and arguably for four. The obstacles are not just tuition expenses but in the way we fund those institutions. Can those institutions afford to offer not just a good education but also the support that many low-income students need? We need to go back to an idea of public education that is cheap and also excellent. Those two qualities can and should go together.

Q: I’m Kevin Stump with JobsFirstNYC. Do we need a different kind of mandate for the purpose and function of higher education in our society? Everything is different but these systems largely haven’t changed in 100 years.

Tough: What students want to hear from us now is how to get the credential they need to make a living and to survive. And I don’t think that needs to steer us toward vocational education or less of a liberal arts focus, but we need to be clear what the connections are between what students are studying and the jobs they can aspire to.

Q: Can you prioritize the solutions?

Tough: The shift that has to happen needs to be global, not just institutions bringing in new programs, but in the thinking of all of us about higher education. On the biggest level, I think it’s about money — a public higher education system funded at levels required to provide cheap pathways to reliable jobs for every student. That’s what we need.

Q: I’m Lisa Belzberg, founder of the nonprofit organization PENCIL and a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. I’d love to encourage you to write your next book on whether college actually makes sense. Do we need it? Can we have a shift within society to where we are not looking at the credential or the degree or the initials after your name anymore?

Tough: I like that idea. I’m a two-time college dropout so I’m in favor of any vision that doesn’t involve college degrees as the means to success. But I can see the data, so it’s hard to argue there are reliable pathways to the middle class that don’t go through some postsecondary credential.

You’re right that we need to do a better job of figuring out exactly what students need. We’re still stuck in a mindset that says certain degrees and programs are the only way. But I don’t yet think the answer is to say college doesn’t matter.

TOP: Chalkbeat’s Sarah Darville interviewed best-selling author Paul Tough at Carnegie Corporation of New York’s headquarters at an event marking the publication of his latest book, “The Years That Matter Most,” a deep dive into higher education in the United States described by Junot Díaz as “extraordinary, indispensable.” (Photo: Celeste Ford)