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

I just finished  reading Paul Tough's:

The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.

For anyone interested in issues related to race and class, it is an incredible book.    Paul Tough is a thorough journalist/investigator and a wonderful writer.   All his books are well worth reading!

Paul Tough carefully explains to us how college admissions and attendance significantly favor the super-rich and significantly make it difficult for students of color, particularly when they aren't upper-middle class individuals going to schools with upper-middle class and wealthy white students.   He explains how the College Board through the S.A.T. and the A.C.T. through its administration help increase inequality.

Tough personalizes his writing with stories of individual students he has talked, as well as admissions officials and others.    His writing is clear and his message well researched.

p. 17

Chetty and his team found that students who attend ultraselective college in the United States are much more likely than other students to become very rich as adults.   Young people who attend "Ivy Plus" institutions ...have about a one in five chance of landing, in their midthirties , among the top 1 percent of American earners, with incomes over $630,000.   .... Students at community colleges, meanwhile, have about a one in three hundred chance.

p. 18

Second Chetty, and his collaborators found that poor kids and rich kids who attend the same institutions are remarkably similar... . Poor students who attend Ivy Plus colleges wind up with household incomes of about $76,000 a year, on average, as young adults.  Rich students who attend Ivy Plus colleges wind up earning about $88,000. ...

Third, the researches found that 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.

p. 19

But that is where the happy story ends.  Because the fourth major discovery made by Chetty and his colleagues was that rich and poor students are not attending the same colleges.  Not at all.   At Ivy Plus colleges, on average, more than two thirds of undergraduates grew up rich, and fewer than 4 percent of students grew up poor.  ...

But in reality, for many young Americans, it functions as something closer to the opposite: (p.20) an obstacle to mobility , an instrument that reinforces a rigid social hierarchy and prevents them from moving beyond the circumstances of their birth.


And as Harvard grew steadily richer, so did its freshman classes.


That means that only a little more than a quarter of Princeton students in 2013 came from the bottom four quintiles- basically from every group but the rich...

p. 123

But Princeton's student body is 8 percent black.  Cornell's is 8 percent black.  Brown's is 8 percent black.  Yale's is 8 percent black.  Harvard's is 8 percent black.  The pattern his hard to miss.

Tough explains with a lot of examples how increasingly the Black students admitted to elite colleges come from immigrant communities, not from families with long-time residence in the U.S.

p. 129

The second big conclusion Tony Jack reached in his research was that Doubly Disadvantaged students had a much rocker experience once they got to college than Privileged Poor students did.  And the most stressful part of the transition wasn't the academic work (though that was stressful as well).  It was their daily interactions with their fellow students

(note:  Privileged - went to elite private high schools (for example) vs. poor predominantly minority public schools)

p. 176

When Boekenstedt looks at all that data, his conclusion is that the nonsubmmitters' low test scores were essentially a false signal, predicting an academic disaster that never arrived.

(talking about how DePaul University made the submission of standardized testing optional and how it results in more poor students of color to get admitted to DePaul and do as well as other students at DePaul.)

p. 309-311

IN THE FALL OF 2018, as I was writing this chapter, Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University and the former governor of Indiana wrote a column in the Washington Post about test-optional college admissions.  He was against the practice, he explained.  He took the straight College Board line, writing about the perils of grade inflation, citing as his only source a USA Today article that took as its only source the paper by College Board researchers that I wrote about in chapter 5.  

He wrote that Purdue, which is a public university, would continue to use the SAT and the ACT in its admissions decisions because those tests provided the most accurate way to predict how students would do in college  “Accepting a high school A at face value and enrolling a student in a calculus course beyond his or her capabilities,” he wrote, “does the student a serious disservice by risking an avoidable failure.”

Ivonne Martinez is precisely the student Mitch Daniels was writing about.  She earned a very high GPA in high school – a 3.98 out of 4 – but received only middling standardized test scores:  a 22 on the ACT and an 1120 on the SAT.   She is a classic example of the deflated SAT “discrepant” category that the College Board identified in its research – and as a Hispanic, first generation female college student from a low-income family, Ivonne matched exactly the demographic profile that the College Board found most often went along with having ah igher GPA than your SAT score would see to predict.

As I wrote in chapter 5, the most salient effect of the use of the SAT in admissions is to keep GPA-discrepant students like Ivonne Martinez out of elite colleges.  And if Ivonne had grown up in Indiana, that is exactly what her SAT score would have done – it would have kept her out of Purdue (where the average SAT score is a 1282) and the state’s other highly selective public colleges.   But because she grew up in Texas, the Top 10 Percent Law enabled her to attend a highly selective university that only considered her GPA, not her SAT, in its admission decision.  In fact, Texas, by law, was forced to do exactly what Mitch Daniels warned was a “serious disservice” to students like Ivonne: it accepted her high school A at face value.  And then Ivonne went and did exactly what Mitch Daniels advised against: she enrolled in a high-level calculus course beyond what her SAT score would predict she could succeed in.  And just as Daniels feared, she struggled.

But then, because she was going to the University of Texas and not Purdue University, she got lots of thoughtful and determined help from her professor and her TA, and she worked extraordinarily hard, and in the end, she earned an A in freshman calculus.  And then the next semester, she went on to take Math 408D, the even more-challenging second half of UT’s calculus sequence, and she got an A in that class as well.   And then in the fall of her sophomore year, she took Discrete Math, covering complex set theory and number theory and she got a B plus.  And she is now on a path to graduate from one of the best public universities in the United States with a degree in higher mathematics – all because the University of Texas was forced to ignore the false signal of her SAT score, and all because she made the choice to risk what Daniels called “an avoidable failure.”

“Risking an avoidable failure.”  It’s worth thinking about that phrase for a while.  Mitch Daniels is right that the surest way to avoid failing a rigorous class like Math 408C is simply not to take it.  There is no risk in following Daniels’s approach – except for the fact that you then cannot become an engineer or doctor or a mathematician.

In contrast to Daniels’s message, Winterer and Treisman said to Ivonne: Yes, there is a risk in taking a highly demanding freshman calculus course when you attended a mediocre high school and have only passable standardized test scores.  The risk is that you might try something really hard and fail.  But in this case, we believe that the potential reward is worth the risk.  Because if you succeed, your life will change for the better – and so will your family’s life, and the life of your community.  And unlike Mitch Daniels, we believe that your amazing performance in high school means that you can succeed, with our help, if you work really hard.

Of course, it is not enough just to encourage students like Ivonne to take that risk.  Daniels is right that placing students with her level of preparation into a difficult calculus course and then providing them with no support will often lead to failure.  One way to avoid that failure is to steer those students away from their goal, toward less selective universities and less prestigious majors.  The other way is to actually teach them calculus.

What Treisman is forced to confront anew each fall is that teaching freshman calculus, especially to students who didn’t attend one of the country’s gold-plated high schools , is really hard work.

(more to added, hopefully later today.)

Other books (reviewed previously) that are very worth reading are:

a book that clearly explains the primary supporters of Donald Trump


People, Power and Profits - by Joseph Stiglitz 

which clearly explains the U.S. related to economics and issues related to wealth and poverty.

Hyperlinks above are to my reviews of each of the latter books.


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