New book: Higher ed isn’t providing opportunity to those who need it most

Higher education has the potential to fuel social mobility, but the elite college campuses best poised to narrow socioeconomic gaps “are almost entirely populated by students who benefit the least from the education they receive there: the ones who were already wealthy when they arrived on campus,” writes author Paul Tough. Tough’s new book, The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, explores stratification within the U.S. higher education system, as well as the financial pressures and structural factors complicating some colleges’ aspirations to admit a more socioeconomically balanced class.

Funding gaps perpetuating inequities

As detailed in The New York Times, 77 percent of children in the top income quartile will go on to earn a college degree by age 24, compared with just 9 percent of children in families from the bottom income quartile. Tough explores the forces fueling these inequities, among them the funding gaps between different types of institutions.

For instance, state funding cuts, Tough notes, have forced public universities to compensate with tuition hikes and to chase out-of-state students willing and able to pay more. Elite colleges with large endowments, meanwhile, are less reliant on tuition dollars and often better equipped to ensure students’ success.

Structural factors slowing the pace of change

Tough shares the stories of students trying to gain admission to and persist through college, shedding light on the financial considerations and structures that thwart some colleges’ efforts to create more socioeconomically balanced campuses. In The New York Times, Tough recently shared the story of Angel Pérez, the head of admissions at Trinity College, a small liberal-arts school in Connecticut, whose two responsibilities—to increase tuition revenue while diversifying the student body—“sometimes seemed to be in conflict.”

Tough shows how external forces, including standardized tests like the SAT and U.S. News & World Report rankings, “make life difficult for enrollment managers who want to admit more low-income students.” Moreover, he writes, “the rise of predictive analytics in admissions and financial aid has had the effect of automating and turbocharging the pressures that enrollment managers have always felt” to admit students from wealthy families who can help keep rankings high and contribute to the college’s bottom line.

‘No one player, one silver bullet’

Tough concludes that “there is no one player, one silver bullet” that will eliminate the forces perpetuating inequity in higher education. But, as EdSurge notes, Tough does offer several suggestions for improvement. 

To start, he calls on elite schools that are less dependent on tuition dollars to admit more low-income students; he urges widespread adoption of test-optional policies. He also says legislators must recognize that public higher education benefits everyone and direct more tax dollars to public colleges and universities. Finally, Tough lauds the shift “toward institutions taking more responsibility for their students’ success.” Speaking with Chalkbeat, Tough said that efforts to boost completion not only produce more degree-holders but also create “a more level playing field, a more representative collection of graduates.” 

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