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The Years That Matter Most

The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us

After six years of researching how the higher education system works, Paul Tough has written a juicy, often-shocking book that calls out the College Board, the top universities in the country and politicians who have pushed access further out of reach from those who need it the most.

Tough, as they say, spills the tea on the whole system.

In “The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us,” we meet people like Ned Johnson, president and “tutor-geek” at PrepMatters, the largest test-prep company in the D.C. area. Johnson charges $400 an hour to deliver results like what he did for Ariel, a young woman who had topped out with a score of 26 (out of 36) on the ACT after working with two other tutors.

Ariel’s parents poured money into sessions with Johnson, who helped raise her score to a top-tier 32, which helped her get admission to her dream school — Washington University in St. Louis. Wealthy families spending thousands on test prep is nothing new. The surprising revelation was the descriptions of the lengths this tutor went to to help his stressed-out clientele. In Ariel’s case, she was convinced that she needed to take a SoulCycle exercise class right before taking the test. Johnson checked all over the metro area trying to find a class early enough, but failing to find one, he set up and replicated a SoulCycle class in her home.

That may seem bizarre, but Tough argues that parents and students set their sights on highly selective colleges because they know there’s a long-term payoff — a belief, he argues, that is supported by long-term earnings data.

There are other behind-the-scenes moments that reveal how much money matters in this process.

“The easiest category of students for most enrollment managers to admit ... are below-average students from high-income families,” an admissions director tells Tough. He calls them CFO Specials, because they appeal to the college’s chief financial officer. Readers can see how this wrangling between admitting high-achieving students from poor families and lower-achieving students from rich families plays out in the admissions process.

It ain’t pretty.

So, where’s this meritocracy that Americans hold so near and dear?

The current system of highly selective colleges, aided by the College Board and its gate-keeping tests, works to protect its own interest and replicate privilege, Tough argues. He describes how the College Board, which administers tests like the SAT, had a pattern of distorting, downplaying or obscuring its own data in public relations attempts to stay relevant and manage its own reputation. The College Board denies that it intended to mislead the public and posted a response to Tough’s reporting.

He wishes colleges would de-emphasize test scores in the admissions process, and the country would commit to much more systemic reforms that would open the doors of opportunity for a larger number of students, like the GI Bill did for previous generations.

Some of the more disturbing details in his book further unmask the myth of meritocracy in a rigged system. Consider that American colleges collectively now give more institutional aid to each student with a family income over $100,000, on average, than they do to each student with a family income under $20,000. The colleges with the largest endowments that could actually afford to admit more low-income students, in fact, admit the fewest. Or that the total black population at elite colleges has remained the same for decades at 8 percent. About 15 percent of American high school graduates are black, but the percentage of black students at Princeton, Cornell, Brown, Yale and Harvard has never budged past 8 percent.

So, are these the years that matter the most when it comes to future success?

Tough makes a convincing argument that they are. He also shows us an uncomfortable picture of a system that is badly broken.

But most importantly and hopefully, he reminds us that it can be fixed.