The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough

Paul Tough is one of the country’s leading writers on education, parenting, poverty, and politics. His wildly successful book, How Children Succeed (2012), introduced readers to vital concepts that shape educational and socio-economic success, such as Adverse Childhood Experiences (A.C.E.), and “noncognitive skills,” like resilience, self-control, and character.

In his newest book, The Years that Matter Most, Tough investigates the nature of higher education: who gets in, who stays in, and how much that college degree matters. Education can be society’s most powerful equalizer, Tough argues, but the way many colleges admit, instruct, and support their students serves to reinforce, rather than redress, our nation’s deep socio-economic divide.

Give an American a college degree, and they will earn 84 percent more over their lifetime, face far lower unemployment rates, and, depending on their gender and race, live 13 years longer, and be more likely to marry and less likely to divorce than a non-college-educated person. It is, in Tough’s words, “a tool for upward mobility” as well as “a shield against downward mobility.”

The path to that degree is anything but clear, especially for kids like Shannen Torres, a poor Dominican-American from the Bronx who is likely to become her high-school class valedictorian. For Torres, the process appears “random and capricious and a little bit ridiculous”— she has little choice but to forge ahead, however, because “for someone like Shannen without family money or influential connections, a degree from a prestigious college seemed to be the only available path to a better future.” In fact, as Harvard’s Raj Chetty has shown, a college degree matters far more to some students than to others.

Competitive Disadvantage

Tough outlines Chetty’s four major findings: First, “students who attend ultra selective colleges in the United States are much more likely than other students to become very rich as adults.” Second, “outcomes for poor kids and rich kids who attend the same institution are remarkably similar.” Third, “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.” And, finally, Chetty’s problematic fourth finding: “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 first two sections of Tough’s book, “Wanting In” and “Getting In,” could not be more timely, given the buzz around the recent Varsity Blues scandal, and Tough’s exploration of the research—mobility equations, enrollment management, and yield rates—does for college admissions what Michael Lewis’s Moneyball did for sabermetrics.

Education can be society’s most powerful equalizer, Tough argues, but many colleges instead reinforce our nation’s deep socio-economic divide.

The section “Fixing the Test,” on the predictive value of the A.C.T. and S.A.T., is where the theoretical rubber really hits the road. Tough’s analysis on the efficacy of standardized tests to measure intelligence, learning, and the potential of human capital breaks down the numbers—using data from the College Board, the organization that administers the S.A.T. and S.A.T. subject tests—concluding that “for about two thirds of high-school seniors, the SAT doesn’t matter much at all. For about a sixth of them—a group that is mostly male, affluent, white, or Asian, with highly educated parents—the SAT improves their chances to get into selective colleges. And for another sixth—a group that is disproportionately female, black, or Latino, low-income and first-generation—the SAT is the factor that most significantly undermines their chances.” For students like Shannen, then, the game of college admission is rigged, no matter how hard you work.

Getting in, however, is only the beginning. In the section “Fitting In,” Tough considers the obstacles “Doubly Disadvantaged” (people of color who attend public schools rather than exclusive private schools) face once the letter of acceptance arrives. Academia, with all its codified language and culture, can be indecipherable for those unacquainted with it. Many report being blindsided by their classmates’ pro forma use of, as one student put it, “weaponiz[ed] .... intelligence,” groveling, and professorial ass-kissing, Tough writes. “In the moral universe of the Doubly Disadvantaged, what matters is the work you do—the essays you write, the tests you take, the labs you complete. But the universities where they were enrolled operated on a different moral code.”

The Years That Matter Most isn’t all doom and statistical gloom, however, and the bright, hopeful sections are a source of inspiration and joy. In the section “Staying In,” Tough explains how struggling students can make it to graduation day with the proper resources. It is here, in his reporting on innovative, solution-driven educators and administrators, that Tough’s writing truly sings.

Tough’s exploration does for college admissions what Michael Lewis’s Moneyball did for sabermetrics.

In the chapter “Getting an A,” Tough introduces us to Professor Uri Treisman, Math 408C, and the importance of knowing how to say “welcome” in Lao. “Treisman knew it wasn’t strictly necessary for him to memorize every single name before the first lecture, or to welcome each student in her mother tongue. He was well aware this was not standard math-professor behavior,” writes Tough. “But he had been teaching calculus, in one form or another, for more than fifty years, and along the way, he had come to believe that taking a first-semester calculus course was for his students not just an intellectual trial; for better or worse, it was also a kind of psychological journey, one that would help mold their identity as college students and as human beings.”

If, as Professor Treisman observed early in his teaching career, freshman calculus is “a burial ground for the aspirations of myriad students seeking better lives through higher education,” he has two choices: to maintain the status quo and continue failing students who can’t hack it in calculus, or to figure out why those students aren’t passing and focus on that variable instead.

That variable, for many of Treisman’s students, is ownership: of calculus, their seat in his class, and their place in the world of mathematics. Given that college most often happens at the tail end of adolescence, Tough argues, higher education is about identity formation as much as it is about helping young people learn what they need to know in order to be successful in life and as a part of American society.

The Years That Matter Most is a vital addition to the conversation on education and equity because, as Tough writes, “The decisions we make about how [our education system] operates—how effectively it functions, who pays for it and how much they pay, how democratic or elitist its selection process is—are really decisions about how our country operates.”

Jessica Lahey is the author of The Gift of Failure and of a forthcoming book on preventing childhood substance abuse