Paul Tough is a new Texan, having relocated from New York to Austin during research for his latest book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Through interviews with students, administrators, and professors at Ivy League schools, state universities, and community colleges, the book shows how the flaws in our system of higher education have a direct impact on social mobility in America, keeping the rich and the poor where they are. In a more hopeful vein, Tough, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, also highlights innovative thinking—including work being done at the University of Texas at Austin—that could lead to a better, fairer system.
Texas Monthly: When I picked up the book I didn’t realize there was going to be so much Texas in it, specifically UT. What was unique about Texas that drew you to report here?
Paul Tough: My original connections with UT were a little bit random. I first came down in 2013 and met David Yeager, who was a psychology professor. I just kept finding stories there that seemed interesting and important, and I think that some of that is coincidence, but a lot of it has to do with the changes that David Laude [a UT administrator tasked with improving the school’s graduation rate] put into effect [seven years ago]. This all goes back in some ways to the top ten percent rule [which mandated that UT-Austin admit the top ten percent of every graduating high school class], which I know not everybody at UT or in Texas thinks is a great thing. But I think it’s really important in terms of making UT so much different than pretty much every other flagship public institution in the country—most of which are changing rapidly in the opposite direction. The University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, the University of Alabama—they’re all becoming more like elite private institutions and admitting students based more on test scores, more out-of-state students, more wealthy students, often more white students. And so that only draws sharper contrasts with what the UT has been able to do.
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TM: What else did you find interesting while you were reporting in Texas?
PT: The very first thing was Professor Yeager’s research about intervention about belonging and ability that he started testing out at UT way back in 2012, I think. [Yeager created a pre-orientation “UT Mindset” intervention that offered information about brain malleability and testimonials from upper classmen who as freshmen had worried about not being smart enough to succeed at UT.] Those interventions related to a lot of what I had been writing about in my previous book, How Children Succeed, about student psychology and child psychology and what kind of interventions can change the way people feel. And through him I met David Laude and to my mind, a lot of the structural changes he’s making were more lasting than those sort of small-scale interventions. But what strikes me about both of these types of interventions is that they’re all informed by this idea that when young people arrive at college for freshman year they’re often experiencing turmoil or identity formation or self-doubt, which can lead to dropouts. But it’s also this opportunity for professors and institutions to send the right kind of messages about belonging and ability. And that if you get that right, as I think UT often does, it can really improve the chances of students to succeed.
TM: I love UT calculus professor Uri Treisman’s quote about the introductory class he teaches: “Almost everything in calculus gets your self-confidence destroyed at some point…I want to be there when they have that crisis.”
PT: I think there’s a few things that draw him to that class. One is that I think he recognizes how important it is. I was more of a liberal arts person in college, and so I didn’t hang out with a lot of engineers and math people, but spending time with those students at UT, it struck me that freshman calculus is literally the most heavily populated class in all of UT and it is such a gateway to all of these careers–to everything in medicine and science and math–and the pressure on it has mounted and the social divisions that lead into calculus have mounted. None of that was stuff that I knew anything about. I think Uri is drawn to it on a personal level but he also recognizes that for UT and for the nation it’s an important problem to solve–that if we don’t figure out how to have more diverse freshman calculus classes and have more equitable success rates in those classes it’s going to lead, down the road, to real divisions in science and math and medicine.
TM: It’ll be interesting to see how much other schools pick up on his methods and replicate them around the country: stressing to students they are part of a tradition of top thinkers in their fields, welcoming them into an intellectual community, and using challenging problems that eventually give the students confidence. You write about how kids in rural areas or lower-income schools who are really smart aren’t getting much help from their high school guidance counselors. How much of the blame goes to the guidance counselors for not engaging with their students early and often about applications?
PT: I would tend to put very little blame on those individuals because I think they’ve got a really hard job. The ratios in a lot of public schools, it’s often one counselor for five hundred or a thousand students. It’s really difficult for them to get the support they need to give students the advice they deserve. I write about this organization called College Advising Corps that is doing a great job around Austin and elsewhere of embedding smart, new college graduates–often first generation students themselves–into schools for a couple of years to help advise high school juniors and seniors. So that’s a good start. I think there’s a lot more that we need to do both to help the students have better support and better advice, but also to make the system less crazy. I’m sure there are some not-great college counselors out there, but mostly, I think they’re doing a good job with not enough resources.
TM: What audience do you most want to read this book?
PT: I’m actually excited about the idea of college students reading it. My hope is that it would give them a perspective on what they’re doing, whether they’re a high-income or a low-income student. When you’re applying to college and when you get to college, you feel like you’re in this sort of universe of one, where you’re the first person to do this and you’re acting in a vacuum. But I hope that understanding the social and political and historical and economic forces that are surrounding any one student as they apply to college and make their way through college would give them a different perspective on what they’re doing.
TM: The book is essentially a deep-dive into the American dream—the notion of social mobility through hard work. But you relay a lot of research that shows the system often runs counter to the American dream. What kind of reaction are you getting from people who aren’t in favor of major changes to higher ed?
PT: I feel like I’ve gotten push-back in two different ways. One is from graduates of highly selective institutions who look at the data about the small number of low-income students at those institutions and say, “Well, that’s not what I heard in the e-mails that I’ve been getting from the alumni association and from the institution.” A lot of these institutions do what they can to portray their diversity in the most positive light. I write about how those numbers can be seen through different lenses. And I think that that is something that a lot of alumni from those institutions are wrestling with: is this place where I went to school actually a meritocracy or not? They really want it to be a meritocracy. The news that it might not be can be hard to wrestle with.
The other places I’ve gotten pushback is people who read what I have to say about welding. [Tough challenges the popular notion that not every child needs a college education because welders earn more than $150,000 a year. While some do, Tough points out that only ten percent of welders make more than $63,000 annually.] They give me pushback and say, “Well if you’re arguing that not every welder is making $150,000 a year, you are disrespecting welders and welding and actually there are great opportunities for young people and we don’t need to spend more money on community college because there are already all these amazing opportunities.” I have two responses to that: One is, that’s not true [there aren’t a lot of amazing opportunities for non-college graduates] and we need to create much better opportunities for those students and be more honest with them about what kind of opportunities are really there for them. But the other is, I feel like we’re in this situation where if you point out that it’s difficult for young people trying to enter the skilled trades, you’re seen as disrespecting those trades, and if you create an inaccurate portrait of how easy it is for kids who go into those fields, then you’re actually respecting the trades. But my feeling is that the opposite is true.
TM: I imagine that you’re getting some pushback from testing companies and the true believers in tests too, right? You say that family income has almost no effect on the high school grades but it has a huge effect on SAT scores. And I love this Washington, D.C., test coach, Ned Johnson, whom you follow in the book. His approach to the test is dismissing the test, laughing at it, so it’s not so stressful.
PT: Well, the College Board definitely doesn’t like the book. They feel threatened by a lot of what I reported about the College Board–everything from the success that test-optional colleges are having to the way the Board has spun the data from a lot of their interventions over the last few years. So they’re trying to discredit the book however they can. But it seems like any kind of corporation that feels threatened wants to say that you got the story wrong. There’s a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of facts in how they’re pushing back.
TM: You say that colleges kind of hate the US News & World Report’s Best Colleges rankings. If families shouldn’t use the US News rankings to look at collages, what alternative should they use to navigate that landscape?
PT: I don’t think there a lot of options out there. A lot of parents take the US News rankings very seriously—especially affluent parents. Affluent parents care about status in everything they do from strollers to squash equipment, and they certainly do when it comes to college. How to unwind that is pretty complicated because it goes deep into human psychology. I would like students and parents to prize the sort of education they can get at a place like the University of Texas, which is both excellent and rigorous but also a diverse campus. And I think more welcoming. Those things are hard to measure and certainly hard to put in a ranking. But I think they’re more important than the kind of metrics that the US News uses–all of which tend to correlate with having lots of rich kids on your campus.
TM: Was there anything else about Texas that you left on the cutting room floor that you think Texans would want to hear? Or need to hear?
PT: The one other institution that I read about in Austin that has nothing to do with UT but that I found really interesting and important was PelotonU, this hybrid online offline college in an office park in north Austin. What they’re doing is really fascinating and important. It’s still a pretty small startup but it’s focused on students, mostly first-generation college students, who are often working, who want a college-level education but don’t particularly want to spend time in a residential four-year college. And PelotonU has come along with this pretty cheap, good, flexible system that can help people get degrees: first a two-year degree and then a four-year degree. That seems like a really important innovation.
TM: You give a pretty blunt assessment about a certain kind of elite hiring that goes on after college, showing the biases towards certain universities and why admissions decisions are important. “Lacrosse bros really do run the world,” you write. “It really is who you know, not what you know.” Can you talk about that?
PT: Yeah, that’s from the research of a sociologist at Northwestern University, Lauren Rivera. She has spent time embedded in these hiring systems of elite professional services firms: investment banks and law firms and consulting companies. And what she finds just confirms all your worst fears about corporate America: that they care very much about credentials from a very small number of institutions, and that beyond those credentials what they care about is not how hard you work or what kind of grades you got in in college—which is what most low-income, first-generation students focus on—it’s on the sports that you played in high school and cultural references that you share. So it’s frustrating that, for some of the first-generation students who manage to make it to these elite academic institutions, even after that selection process happens, there is still the second screening process that makes it much easier to get hired when you have the same kind of high school experience as the people who are doing the hiring. Fortunately, there are lots of good jobs out there that aren’t in those elite professional services firms. But those elite companies are usually the ones that pay the best.
TM: You talk about the reasons colleges feel pressured to lure wealthy students–the “CFO specials” admitted to make the school’s Chief Financial Officer happy. It sounds like colleges are trying to change their admissions philosophies but don’t see many options, am I understanding that right?
PT: Yeah, I think that’s right. are pressures on admissions officers that I hadn’t really understood before I started this reporting and in the beginning of my reporting I was mostly talking with students. You know Shannen Torres [one student Tough followed] just thought of the admissions department as this all-powerful force that was just judging her based on her merit and she wanted to measure up. And then I started spending time with admissions people and realized that they didn’t see themselves as powerful at all! They felt like they were under enormous pressure—pressure not only to choose the right students, but also just to keep their colleges afloat, many of which were under real financial pressure. Those institutions now make a lot of their decisions based on the ability of the students to pay. They think of themselves as salespeople and they’re looking for customers. And that is just not how we think about higher education admissions. What is frustrating for them in their jobs is that they need to keep this fiction going that higher education admissions is really about merit and quality and diversity when in reality, every day they are just trying to make enough tuition revenue to keep their colleges going. So that division that you’re talking about is really true: that there are a lot of administrators in general–but especially admissions people–who want to admit a more diverse freshman class and there are just pressures that make it impossible for them to do so.
TM: Was there a point in your reporting when you saw a nugget for your next book?
PT: I really don’t know what I want to write about next or what I want to do next. This book definitely took a lot out of me, so I need to figure out the right project to dive into next. Fortunately, I have a habit of taking a long time to get going on each writing project. So I’m going to give myself a little time to do that.