Evaluating the Equity of Higher Education | Interview with Paul Tough

We met with Paul Tough to discuss first-generation students, test scores, the changing landscape of college admissions, and much more. Enjoy!

Evaluating the Equity of Higher Education | Interview with Paul Tough
The rich white kids had lower graduation rates, even though they had often higher test scores, than the lower income students.” – Paul Tough

Author Paul Tough discusses his recent book The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us which reveals the shocking divisiveness of higher education in the United States. Tough shows how changing the admissions process, increasing support for students, and reevaluating how higher education is funded would allow more students to have access to an increasingly valuable college degree. Paul Tough emphasizes the fact that first-generation and low-income students have high rates of success when given the opportunity and debunks the myth that these students are less capable because of their lower test scores. Follow along as New York Times best-selling author and journalist Paul Tough talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University as she offers advice to high school students beginning the college admission process.

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Want to hear more from Paul Tough? Check out Karina Macosko’s interview with Paul Tough here.

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Interview with admissions expert, Paul Tough

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:16.8What needs to change?

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. And today we have Paul Tough, who’s an author who’s written a recent book about the inequality machine. And, Paul, it’s fascinating to think about your book, and specifically the three things that you kind of recommend that we might change in order to help our colleges not be such the inequality machines that they currently are.

The first thing that you suggested is to change the admissions process so that people who are from first generation families and underrepresented minorities and less wealthy families can get in. The second thing you talked about is making it a structure that supports people from different backgrounds at the university, and then the third thing you recommend is just... Remind me what the third thing was.

Paul Tough: The third thing is a policy question. So this isn’t something that’s so much we can do as individual families or institutions, but what we can do as voters and citizens, which is to change the way that we fund public higher education.

Jed: Go back to the old days where a state school really was cheap, 500, $1,000 a year, which would have been no trouble for almost any families. So those are the three things that I like about your book. I would say that the third one, if we could accomplish it, would make everybody happy. Nobody’s gonna begrudge somebody who wants to go to a state school and then doesn’t have to pay much money for it, it already is a lot cheaper than the private school, so whether it’s a third the price or a tenth of the price, I don’t think people are gonna begrudge that, but the other two things people might begrudge. If you are trying to get into an elite college and you’ve worked really hard and gotten good test scores, and good grades, and then somebody passes you by who has less good test score, less good grades, you might begrudge that.

And also the second thing you were saying about hiring people at a university to really help people who are not from a college-going background to get plugged in... Well, I’ve heard that even called a Ponzi scheme because you’re bringing people in who need help and then you’re hiring people to help those people, and it just kind of is this sort of self-feeding feedback loop. How would you address that concern?

Paul: I’d start, to go back to the policy issue, so I like the idea, but no one would begrudge making public higher education accessible and cheap for lots of people, but clearly there are some people who’d begrudge it because state legislature after state legislature over the last 40 years have underfunded public higher education. It’s not an accident. Yeah, I think it’s because we don’t wanna pay more taxes to make public higher education publicly accessible. So I do think that that’s a real... That’s a real fight, and it’s a really important fight, and it is sort of a conceptual fight as much as a political one. It means us rethinking the question of who belongs in college, who deserves a college education?

We had one answer to that 40 years ago, we have I think a different one now, but in terms of admissions and helping students succeed once they get there. So I spent a lot of time with students who come from first generation and low-income backgrounds, and I think there’s an assumption that a lot of people make that these students are less able to succeed in higher education, and certainly if you come from a first generation background, if you go to an under-resourced high school, you do need... Often, you need a little extra help at the beginning, especially in freshman year, but it is amazing how when those students, when those good students, maybe with lower test scores from first generation backgrounds get to high quality institutions, they succeed in large numbers and in big ways.

And so I think we really have to push back against the assumption that those students are less capable, less successful. There are lots of institutions that I went to where in fact, the reverse was true. I wrote about a private college in Connecticut, where I spent some time with the admissions office, Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. And they had a lot of pressure as a lot of private institutions do to admit more rich kids, not because those students were better qualified, but because those students could pay full tuition, and like a lot of private institutions, Trinity was having some financial difficulties a few years ago.

I think they probably still are, with the pandemic. And so the head of admissions wanted to admit more low-income and first generation students, but he couldn’t really afford to. He improved the Pell percentage by a couple of percentage points, but there were a lot of low-income, first generation, underrepresented minority students who were applying to his school who he couldn’t admit because he couldn’t afford to. And in fact, when he started, when he was able to admit those students, they were doing great. The rich white kids had lower graduation rates, even though they had often higher test scores than lower income students. Low-income students who are able to get to those sorts of institutions are often incredibly hard working. They’re very smart. They have overcome great obstacles in order to even get to the point where they’re applying to one of those schools.

And when they are admitted and given sort of a small amount of support, especially in freshman year, getting acquainted, getting adjusted, they do great, and there are lots of examples in my book of students who do that, and there’s lots of data that supports that as well. So that’s why I think investing in those outcomes is really important. It really is a fairness issue, but it’s also... It also makes institutions more excellent. It produces more really highly qualified graduates.

Jed: That is encouraging, and I think those are good examples of why we can feel good about all three of your recommendations, and I agree, it’s not a piece of cake to get the state legislators to fund state colleges. I’m just saying conceptually, no one might mind about that, just as long as it’s not necessarily their money coming out of their pockets.

Paul: Right, right. It should be a no-brainer definitely. But it’s hard to [0:06:47.0] ____.

0:06:47.2Sign off

Jed: It should be a no brainer and it’s nice to hear a lot of presidential candidates talking about free public education for all, or at least free like community colleges for all, and that was being talked about in the last election cycle. So hopefully that piece of the puzzle will come together, and then the other two pieces as well. I thought you made a good argument, so thank you for taking some time with us today to explain your book. Exciting book. We really appreciate it.

Paul: Great, thank you very much, appreciate it.