We met with Paul Tough to discuss first-generation college students, investing in higher education as a country, ways in which students can think idealistically about the college admissions process, and much more. Enjoy!
Author and journalist Paul Tough has dug deep into the educational landscape in the United States and found higher education to be at the root of our increasingly divisive society. Student Karina Macosko discusses the increasing value of a college education with Tough and he reveals the pressures that achieving that goal can put on young students. Paul Tough believes that removing the incentives to admit more affluent students, while at the same time increasing the support for first-generation students, and investing in higher education as a country will help to remove the inequities in educational opportunities that exist. Tough urges students applying to college to look beyond admissions and consider the equity of the system they are investing in. He offers practical ways in which students, parents, and alumni can “think idealistically” about the college admissions process.
"College has become this thing that increases the divides in American life that tends to track people into two directions."” – Author Paul Tough
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I’m here with Paul Tough, and he is an author. And you recently wrote The Machine of Inequality, which talks about how college divides us, and so I’m super interested to hear about this. But first, we’re gonna start with your background.
So how did you start writing, and how did you start writing specifically about college?
Paul Tough: So I’ve been writing about education for a little more than a decade. I was a magazine editor for a long time. But back in sort of the mid-2000s, I became a full-time writer, and my first book was about an organization called the Harlem Children’s Zone. It was called Whatever It Takes. And then I wrote a book called How Children Succeed, and a follow-up called Helping Children Succeed, and those were about how kids, especially those growing up in low-income homes, were affected by their surroundings, by the way they grew up, and what sorts of interventions in school and outside of school could improve their chances, their outcomes.
And as I got to the end of that book, How Children Succeed, back in about 2012, 2013, I started to realize that there was this other part of the education system that was playing a huge role in which children went on to successful adulthoods, and which did not, and that was higher education, was college and university.
And so I wanted to try to figure out how that system worked. So it took me six years of reporting to write this book, The Inequality Machine. And I went all over the country, visited lots of different institutions, talked to students in high school, as well as students in college, as well as experts and administrators of all kind, and came to believe, at the end of that reporting, that yeah, it was college, it was higher education that had played this really important role in dividing our country and in determining who was getting advantages and who was not.
Karina: Wow, that is fascinating! And we’ve talked to a lot of writers on here who write about the college admissions process, but most of them focus on how to get your kid into college. And so I just wanna hear why is it that college is such this deciding factor, this dividing factor in our country.
Paul: Well, there are, I think there are a few reasons. One is that a college degree is particularly valuable right now at this point in American economic history, mostly not so much because people with college educations are doing so great, but because people without college degrees are not doing well at all. So over the last 30, 40 years, the outcomes for people who don’t have more than a high school education have been staying flat or actually going downhill. It’s been a rough time for working-class people, in part because of changes in the economy, in part because of policy decisions that we’ve made as a country. And so that has put more of a value, what economists call the college premium, more of a value on having a college diploma. And so there’s a lot of pressure, I think, on families, on individual students to get that degree, whether they particularly want to or not.
And then at the same time, during that same period, we’ve had this stratification of higher education. So again, about 40 years ago, getting any kind of college degree was a good thing, was... There was a fair amount of equivalents in different types of degrees from different types of institutions, and that has changed. Now, there are certain institutions that are highly selective, that are very much in-demand, that reject a lot of applicants. And those tend to be the ones that have the biggest impact on students’ economic outcomes. Whereas, there are lots of other institutions that have much lower graduation rates that spend much less on their students, that support students much less well, and that tend to have a much less of a positive impact on their life outcomes.
So as a result, college has become this thing that increases the divides in American life, that tends to track people into two directions, and take kids who already have advantages and steer them toward more successful adulthoods, and take kids who lack advantages in childhood and steer them toward worse outcomes.” – Author Paul Tough
And the big problem, apart... Well, that’s sort of big problem on its own, but the bigger problem is that there is a real divide in who goes where. So kids who grow up with a lot of resources, who grow up in wealthy or affluent families are much more likely to go to those more selective institutions, and kids who grow up without parents who went to college, who grow up without a lot of money, who grow up in neighborhoods where not a lot of people go to college, they are less likely to be admitted to those most selective institutions, and more likely to have a difficult time making it through college.
So as a result, college has become this thing that increases the divides in American life, that tends to track people into two directions, and take kids who already have advantages and steer them toward more successful adulthoods, and take kids who lack advantages in childhood and steer them toward worse outcomes.
Karina: Wow, this is so interesting! And where do you see this divide taking place? Is that between the wealthy families and everybody else? Or is it between parents who went to college, kids who had parents who went to college and people who didn’t? Or are there multiple shifts between people who didn’t even have parents who went to college, and then people who could maybe get into the Ivy Leagues, but not really pay for it or it’d be extremely expensive, and then the people who had all the resources and can pay for the Ivy Leagues? Where is the division?
Paul: It’s a great question and it’s a complicated answer because all of those dividing lines really overlap a lot. And the other one where, the other dividing line that we haven’t mentioned yet is race. And so all of those things tend to correlate. And so families with lower incomes, families where parents... First-generation families, families or parents who did not get college degrees, and families from underrepresented minority groups, mostly Blacks and Latinos, they are less likely, in all sorts of ways, to benefit from college and university, to be admitted, first of all, to the institutions that have the biggest impact on future earnings to be able to afford those institutions, to get the kind of support they need to have successful outcomes once they’re in those institutions. So I don’t think it’s possible to say any one of those dividing lines is the big one, and the others are less important. It really is... You can use any of them and you’ll see the same sorts of patterns in terms of who’s succeeding and who’s not.
Karina: Oh, wow, interesting! And did your book at all address how... What we can do to fix this, to fix these divisions?
Paul: Sure. There are at least three things that I think that we could change that would make things work better, and one has to do with admissions. So there are lots of pressures going on in admissions offices and those decisions that those college admissions people are making. But right now, all of the incentives in those admissions offices are to continue to admit more kids who already have advantages. If you admit those students, students from private schools, students from affluent families, they’re more likely be able to pay full tuition, they’re more likely to have high test scores, which looks good in US news rankings. They’re more likely to have the kind of families that are gonna make big donations. And so in all sorts of ways, there are pressures to admit more rich kids. And we could change those incentives, I think. By "we", I mean not only the public through policy, through government, but also alumni of those institutions, students at those institutions, parents whose kids go to those institutions, are applying to those institutions. We could put pressure on those admissions offices to make different sorts of decisions.
The second place I think we could change things, and this is more of an institutional fact, is that colleges could do a better job of helping lower-income and first-generation students succeed once they get there. So I wrote a lot about the University of Texas here in Austin, which, over the last decade or so, has put a lot of effort and thought into how to improve the outcomes for their lower-income students. And they made huge strides in improving graduation rates for those students, not by sort of dumbing down the curriculum or for making things easier on those kids, but by giving them the kind of support, mentoring, tutoring that they needed, especially in freshman year, not only to sort of understand how college worked if they were first-generation students and didn’t get all of the lingo and all of the customs of a college campus, but also to give them a sense of belonging and connection, which is often really lacking for first-generation students.
And then the third thing I think that we could change is very much a policy question. It’s about how we pay for college. So again, 40 years ago, public higher education institutions, public colleges were mostly supported by the public. Tuitions were very low. You’d pay $500 or $700 a year to go to these institutions, including some very good ones. And so really, anyone could afford to go and you weren’t... You didn’t come out of it in a lot of debt. And that meant that there was a lot less pressure on those institutions and a lot less pressure on private institutions as well, and less pressure on the applicants.
And over the last 40 years, we’ve really changed the funding formula so that the public pays less and less. We invest less in public higher education than we used to. And families pay more and more. And that’s, again, just a policy decision. It’s a decision that was made in state capitals all over the country over the last 40 years.
And that's a decision that we could reverse. We could decide again that public higher education is something that we wanna invest in as a country, and that we want to support our young people in getting college degrees.” – Author Paul Tough
And that’s a decision that we could reverse. We could decide again that public higher education is something that we wanna invest in as a country, and that we want to support our young people in getting college degrees. And that would lead to all sorts of changes. That would mean that college would be more accessible to lots more students. It would mean students would be graduating without huge debt the way so many of them are today. And I think many more students would be successful as well because money pressures are a big factor in students who start and that aren’t able to finish.
Karina: Wow! This is just fascinating, especially as I’m just starting this college admissions process to hear what your book’s written about, and hear about these divisions that colleges can form. And we’ve talked to a lot of other college writers, like I said, but I think you will have a very unique perspective about advice you have for students going forward because most of them focus on how to get there, but I feel like you focus on: What do we need to change about getting there? And how to make it more inclusive when you’re in college.
So what advice would you have for people just starting out on the college admissions process, or in college, or even alumni, like you said?
Paul: So yeah, yeah. It’s a complicated message, I think, for people, for young people at that stage and their families because it is a moment where you feel very competitive. You often feel very sort of insecure, very anxious. And everything, all of the incentives in the system are about just sort of looking out for yourself and beating all those other kids and getting the slot that they might get. So it’s a hard time to think sort of altruistically, and think about sort of the ethics and the morals of applying to college.
And so if you are, I think, a young person with those advantages who has parents or if you have parents who are college-educated, if your family has enough money to send you to college, then I would really encourage you to think about the system that you’re applying to at the same time as you’re applying and ask questions and look... My book is one resource. There are lots of others out there that will explain to you a little bit more about the system that you’re applying to.
And so that's a place where I think you can change your thinking, and look at the system that you're applying to and ask questions about how it could be different and who it's benefiting.” – Author Paul Tough
I think this is... My sense of your generation is that it’s a very idealistic generation. You collectively are thinking in really new ways about things like race and gender and privilege and climate, and all sorts of really important issues. And one of the biggest issues, I think, facing our country has to do with the equity and inequity that’s going on in college admissions. So in this one part of your lives, we’re encouraging you not to think altruistically or idealistically. We’re encouraging you to think competitively and viciously. And so that’s a place where I think you can change your thinking, and look at the system that you’re applying to and ask questions about how it could be different and who it’s benefiting.
Karina: Oh, wow! I think that is some great advice. And just to make it even more practical for the people watching this, what does it mean to think idealistically in this process? Because of course, like you said, everybody’s just trying to make it through, trying to get into college. It’s already such a stressful process. But what kind of questions could we be asking? Is it like asking, "Well, what do you do for equity?" And then only applying to those schools who are actively making a set to do that? Or what does it really look like to think idealistically throughout this process?
Paul: Yeah, I think when it comes to admissions, it’s really hard. I think looking at the demographics of the schools that you’re applying to and recognizing that some of the most selective ones are not particularly diverse. Sometimes, they’re diverse in terms of their racial statistics, but not often in terms of their economic statistics. So when you’re applying to colleges, look at their Pell percentages. Look at their first-generation percentages.
The Pell percentage is the percentage of students who are able to get a Pell grant, which is available to lower-income families... Middle class and working class and lower-income families. And so understanding if you’re not Pell-eligible, understanding that if you go to a place that has a Pell percentage of 10% or 15%, it’s gonna be a lot of rich kids. And some people wanna go to those colleges, and there are advantages to going to those colleges, but there are advantages to going to a more economically-diverse place as well.
And students can do… a whole lot of work in terms of making their campuses… not only more diverse, but more truly inclusive, more welcoming, more of a place where lots of different students can feel a sense of belonging and connection.” – Author Paul Tough
And then I think the place, actually, where students can make the biggest difference is in understanding once you get to college, especially if you’re going to a particularly selective college, if you’re not a first-generation student, understanding how, for first-generation students, college can be a very different kind of experience. And the whole campus can play a huge role in making college more welcoming for students who don’t have experience of college before in their family. And students can do a huge... Can do a whole lot of work in terms of making their campuses more, not only more diverse, but more truly inclusive, more welcoming, more of a place where lots of different students can feel a sense of belonging and connection.
Karina: Wow! Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really so interesting hearing about your book and hearing about this different perspective of college admissions that isn’t so competitive, but really trying to be more inclusive. So thank you so much and I can’t wait for people to get a chance, hopefully, to read your book, so thank you so much.
Paul: Thank you very much, and good luck with the process. Hope it goes well.
Karina: Thank you.