Higher Education By Any Other Name

In 2019, before the pandemic, Paul Tough’s book The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, came out to good reviews. It was repackaged in 2021 and given a new tile: The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us. Having read the book under its original title, I can confidently state the new moniker better captures the argument. For good or bad, the issue of names, brand and reputation is very much of the story about how we talk about elite higher education. Would an ivy by any other name smell as anywhere near as sweet?

Tough brings strong investigative skills and a refreshing sense of outrage to the book. A Canadian who moved to the US after college, he has both the insider knowledge and the outsider’s perspective to ask hard questions that many Americans might miss. Tough is a journalist, not a scholar or educator. He knows how to craft a story and it shows throughout The Inequality Machine. The focus, whenever possible, is on the impact of higher education on individuals, especially students.

Sannen Torres, a New York City high school super achieving student who was keen to attend Princeton or University of Pennsylvania, opens the book. Tough aligns her story with the historic promise of social mobility, and then to the research of Raj Chetty. An influential economist, Chetty’s work demonstrates that students attend ultraselective colleges are much more likely to become extremely rich adults. Students who attend less selective colleges, or community colleges, are much less likely to become very wealthy. Interestingly, though, students who graduate from selective colleges are likely to become wealthy regardless of whether or not they matriculate with or without money. The difficulty with all this is that very few poor students attend the Ivy plus colleges. For these, think of institutions with billion dollar endowments. Their overall enrollment is tiny relatively to the vast majority of students in higher education. Chetty’s work on mobility has led to lots of editorials and research, but not many deep changes in policy or practice.

Tough’s focus, following up, is on college admissions – especially elite college admissions. He highlights the glaring difficulties of trying to create fair assessments, the struggles surrounding the testing industry, including coaching, and the randomness of elite college undergraduate admission. This is well-trod ground, and Tough has done his research, referencing other books and reports. Where things get more complicated are Tough’s attempts to dig deeper into the ways that social/economic stratification takes place at elite institutions. He talks with many students and many educators. Patterns of power replicate themselves within college campuses many different ways, just as they do at work, in housing, in much of our lives. For many who have worked within academia, especially at more exclusive institutions, the realization comes as no surprise. The anti-democratic college impulse, which Tough and so many find troublesome, is also, ironically, one of the most important reasons that these institutions flourish and are sought by so many.

Completion gaps and equity gaps also fall under Tough’s critical gaze. Wealthier students complete college at higher rates than poorer students. Wealthier students are more often white; students of color are more likely to be of lesser financial means. Again, while higher education has the potential to ameliorate these discrepancies, if often does not. The dynamic of exacerbating inequality is one of the key sources of distrust of college. Tough rightly calls the value proposition of college a difficult argument, particularly for those who have only participated to prevent a loss of a job or social class. Fear is not a good reason to go to college.

Balancing out the student stories are accounts of innovative educators and teachers. The section on Uri Treisman, who has done wonders at the University of Texas and with mathematics education across the nation, stands out as particularly moving. Teachers matter tremendously. It’s a fundamental fact that often gets shunted aside in discussions about institutions and ranking.

Tough closes with a reference to the GI Bill, a watershed moment in American education. He talked to some direct benefits of that bill and college. Current day realities, though, stand in contrast. Tough notes that Obama’s push for more college opportunities for more was met with indifference. As the program’s funding was cut, few stood up and demanded a greater investment in public higher education. Those on the right argued about elitism. The effort, like many others withered away. Tough wants it to be otherwise, and he emphasizes a basic truth: our collective public education benefits us all.

Tough’s values and aims are worthy. His curiosity and skill at explaining are outstanding. He’s correct, too, that higher education – especially elite higher education – exacerbates difference and class. What makes the book challenging, though, is that his broad assertions can mask complications when one looks closely at the data and gives more attention to history and politics.

Unique among developed nations, America’s top elite institutions are all private. Though they depend in great part on government support and policy, they have private boards and ultimately are private organizations. This historic fact, and all that accompanies it, cannot be understated in terms of how we come to grips with elite college in the US. Its import is not evaluated by Tough. He references the great differences between institutions, but does not pursue that line of inquiry with much detail. Similarly, a significant part of the reason that elite undergraduate institutions perpetuate elites is the increased likelihood of graduate education. That is where the a massive difference in income and power lie. For example, while Harvard undergraduate matters, Harvard Business and Law Schools may matter all the more. Tough’s ambitious agenda does not offer the space to consider more thoroughly how the broader educational ecosystem, mostly staffed and led by elites, perpetuates itself.

All that said, it is impossible to read The Inequality Machine and not root for students, for educators who want to increase access, and to reformers who want to make higher education an opportunity for all. Tough’s skill at capturing the hope and promise of students is extraordinarily compelling.

David Potash

One Comment

  1. But what keeps “public education” from being a tool by which the state indoctrinates children with things they want them to believe?

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