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Why Journalist Paul Tough Says 'College Makes Or Breaks Us'

University of Michigan
University of Michigan

Students in high school may not realize it, but they're having to make lots of decisions that will likely determine their future. Journalist Paul Tough joined Krys Boyd on Think to talk about how the choices students make during the college admissions process can impact the rest of their life.

Tough explores the challenges prospective college students face, particularly low income students, in a new book called “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us."


What are do you mean by “the years that matter most”?  

The biggest decision is where they are admitted to college. It also matters how much aid they get. that varies a lot. But all of those decisions about where they end up and what opportunities they have, those few years right after the end of high school turn out to have a huge impact on their trajectory going forward.

We've entered a moment where a college education can be a tool for upward mobility, or it can simply provide a shield against downward mobility. How does college prevent poverty?

Well, the data for any individual student is really clear. If you get more credentials, especially credentials from more selective institutions, it on average increases your lifetime earnings. But for a lot of students, if they only get a B.A. and don't go on beyond that, it's not this huge boost into the financial stratosphere. It often just acts as a guard against falling downward, and I think that fact has changed the way we think about higher education. It's led to the anxiety that a lot of individuals, a lot of families feel about college admissions. In the past, when it was just this tool of upward mobility, it seemed like something that was kind of exciting and aspirational. Now there's a lot more anxiety attached to it.

How does luck sometimes affect where people go to college and how well they do, not just in college, but in life?

Well, there's at least two kinds of luck that play into it, and the biggest one is the luck of birth. What zip code you're born into with the education level of your parents. Certainly students can have different levels of motivation and hard work in their K-12 education, but there are huge correlations between family income and S.A.T. scores and what kind of higher education institutions students go to. If they come from a wealthy family, they are quite likely to end up in a selective institution. If they come from a low income family, they are quite unlikely to do so. There is also just, even among well-off families, the luck of college admissions. What any one college admissions officer sees in your application on that particular day. With so many students applying to highly selective institutions, there's just no guarantee for anyone getting in.

Though the vast majority of Americans who attend college will not attend an Ivy League or comparable school, how do students who attend these schools fare later in life?

This is some data that Raj Chetty and a few other economists turned up in their Mobility Report Cards project a couple of years ago. What they found is that students in what they call the Ivy Plus colleges, Ivy League and a few other highly selective institutions, have a 1 in 5 chance of being in the top 1% of earners by their mid-30s.

Are students who start out poor but attend an elite university as likely as their wealthy classmates to do so well financially upon graduation?

Almost. So another finding from Raj Chetty and his colleagues was that when two students go to the same institution, even if they come from very different backgrounds, their outcomes, their financial outcomes as adults will be almost the same. There's still a small gap of a few thousand dollars between their average salary. But what's remarkable to me about that is that they were starting from such different places, and those four years of school almost entirely erase the huge gaps that they came to college with.

Listen to Paul Tough's entire interview with Krys Boyd on KERA's Think.

Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.