Paul Tough on Inequality in Higher Education

American students today owe a staggering $1.5 trillion in loans – that’s $28,000 in debt for the average graduate. But is it worth it? In his new book, “The Years That Matter Most,” author Paul Tough reminds us that the university system is already tilted towards the wealthy. He sits down with Michel Martin to discuss how inequality has come to define higher education.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Students know a lot about debt. On average, a graduate racks up $28,000, but is it worth it? In his new book “The Years That Matter Most”, author, Paul Tough, reminds us that the university system is already tilted towards the wealthy, and he sat down with our Michel Martin to discuss how inequality has come to define higher education.


MICHEL MARTIN: Paul Tough, thank you so much for talking with us.


MARTIN: The big story for, I think, the rest of the public is this college admissions scandal.


MARTIN: Where celebrities were literally making up profiles for their kids, paying huge sums of money as bribes. what did you think?

TOUGH: I think by the time that it happened, I had been so immersed in talking to admissions people who can be a little — I mean, in lots of ways, they’re very idealistic, but they can also be skeptical or even cynical about how the admissions process works, that I wasn’t all that surprised. I mean, obviously, like the details are crazy and incredibly surprising, but the depths or lengths that certain parents will go to, but that sort of world view, that higher admissions, is this cut-throat competition, that there are no rules, that you can do whatever you want, that it’s an unfair system and our only job as parents is to, like, get the unfairness to work for us instead of for somebody else. I think that pervades a lot of admissions, and especially admissions at the most selective institutions.

MARTIN: I don’t know if you intend this, but in a way you sound like this is a moral failing of the upper middle class and the wealthy, that they’ve sort of changed their minds and just said college is about aggregating more of what we already have.

TOUGH: I started from the premise that things were out of whack and I thought I could find like, yeah, this was the person, this was moment, this was the organization that had thrown things off, and it’s really not that way. I mean, I — you know, I feel like things have changed in this country in general over the last few decades. In an earlier era, we did believe in collective good more than we do today. We’re much more competitive. We’re much more — I mean, I think it’s an angrier time than it has been in the past, and I think that plays out in higher education as well. So, you know, like, who is to blame, where it started? I don’t even think just saying like this is an upper middle class problem is fair. That class certainly is the one that — they makes the headlines, but it’s not just about them. I mean, the real problem, when I look at higher education, that it’s the public institutions, the public sector where things have really fallen down, and that’s all of our responsibility.

MARTIN: How does that play out?

TOUGH: So, the big picture is that over the last couple of decades, since 2001, we have cut per-student public funding on higher education by about 16 percent across the country, adjusted for inflation. So, that’s like a big cut, right? And it’s a big cut at a moment where all of the signs from the economy and from the labor market are that our young people need more higher education, not less. So, that’s what we’ve been doing as the public. What effect that has had on our institutions, I think, is two things. So, at the more selective public institutions, the flagship institutions like University of Michigan, University of Virginia, the sort of the great public flagships in this country — they have been behaving more like private institutions. So they are taking more students from out of state, they are charging more, they are using the same kind of admissions metrics, putting more focus on having — admitting kids with high SAT scores. And as a result, they are like private institutions, educating more rich kids and fewer low-income kids. Then, when we’re talking about some less selective institutions — and there are a lot of those public institutions that are less selective, community colleges and regional public universities that are mostly designed to take anybody who wants to show up — the problem there is just that we’re not giving them enough money to do their job. We’re spending less on — much less on a year of community college than we’re spending on a year of high school, so the public’s like, OK, we’re going to spend a lot of money on you, or a decent amount of money on you when you’re 15 and 16 and 17, and then like you’re 18 and 19 and suddenly your education was — is —

MARTIN: Why is that, because we didn’t think they were important?

TOUGH: I think that we just think about higher education differently than we think about K-12 education, that we think — we still have this idea in our head, and I think we feed it ourselves, the media feeds it as well, that, like, yeah, after high school is real, like public education, right? But then after that it’s — it’s like extra, it’s a luxury, right, anything that happens after that, and that that is a moment where kids are supposed to just fend for themselves, they’re supposed to pay for themselves, they’re supposed to figure it out for themselves. It’s not really the job of the institutions to help them graduate. I think in some places, that is starting to change, but we’ve drawn that line, and that line doesn’t really make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense that we would just say, you know, after you turn 18, your education is your own responsibility, and partly because a high school education’s not enough. Like, there’s just no question that you cannot just with a high school education get, you know, achieve the building blocks of a middle- class life.

MARTIN: So why don’t we talk about the kids, some of the kids you spend time with. You know, I’m sure you interviewed a whole bunch of people and you chose to focus on a few because they illustrate some of the points that you want to make. So why don’t you just tell me about a few of them, tell me why their stories are important?

TOUGH: Sure. So in the first chapter of the book, I describe this one remarkable, sad afternoon that I spent with a young woman named Shannon from the Bronx who was going to high school in Harlem and was an unbelievable student who had worked incredibly hard in her last couple of years of high school, especially to get into an Ivy League school. That was her goal. Then she sort of had been focused on it with incredible determination. And so, I was with her at the moment that she was going to hear, you now hear (INAUDIBLE) did this on your phone, instead of getting an envelope in the mail. And what was incredible to me about that moment was not just her waiting for those results and getting those results, but it was her coming to terms with that idea that this whole question of whether mobility works, whether higher education works, whether it’s a meritocracy, was for her playing out at that particular moment.

MARTIN: But — how old is she, 17 at the time?

TOUGH: Yeah, 17, 18.

MARTIN: So here’s a 17-year-old basically saying, my whole life hangs in the balance. Spoiler alert — she gets — she’s already been admitted to another school.

TOUGH: Yeah.

MARTIN: With a full ride, not an Ivy, but a very fine school.

TOUGH: Yeah. There was a part of me that wants to do what us adults often want to do, which is to say, oh, don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal, right? Because I think the reality is, whether you’re at a super ultra exclusive institution or just an ultra exclusive institution doesn’t make a huge difference, and she’s putting way too much pressure on herself. So, yes, all that was true, but what was important to me about that moment as well — and I had just come from spending time with this economist in Silicon Valley named Raj Chetty, who had been studying mobility, is that she was kind of right in all of these important ways, that especially for low-income students, what kind of institution you get to really does have a big impact on the trajectory of your life. So, she was right in all these important ways.

MARTIN: So, hold up. It’s not just about going to college, it’s where you go to college.

TOUGH: Yeah. I think what happens to you in college makes a huge difference. I think the difference between, you know, for her it was Penn and Davidson. I don’t think that makes or breaks us. I think Shannon is going to be great no matter where she goes, right?

MARTIN: OK, but generally speaking – I totally take your point that you don’t want to tie the whole policy to one kid, but what you’re seeing is generally speaking, because you looked at — you talked to people with huge data sets —

TOUGH: Yes, it really does make a difference where you go to college, absolutely. And what makes a bigger difference for me is that when you look at those institutions, the institutions that, you know, the data shows are the most — do the most to help your social mobility or the most to help your future earnings, those institutions are almost entirely populated by rich kids, by kids who grew up in the top economic quintile and that kids like Shannon mostly aren’t going to the Penns or the Davidsons; they’re mostly going to community colleges or nonselective public institutions that we have totally underfunded.

MARTIN: One of the things that I appreciate, though, about this — and I don’t want to be — I want to be very clear that, you know, poor and minority are not synonyms, OK?


MARTIN: But I do — one other thing that I found fascinating was that there are lots of programs out there or different strategies out there to try to diversify these campuses and attract kids from different economic backgrounds. And there are white kids who don’t feel particularly comfortable on these campuses. Can you just tell the Kim (ph) story? The reason why — I just found that fascinating, because Kim is a white kid who didn’t feel all that comfortable either. Could you talk a little bit about her story and why it matters?

TOUGH: For sure. I mean, this was some of the reporting to me that was the most interesting that I got to do, was in this town called Taylorsville, which is in the Appalachian foothills in western North Carolina. And it’s almost all white, almost all Republican and not a lot of money in this county or in this town at all. And so, Kim was this young person who was, like a lot of the kids I talked to, super ambitious, working really hard. But when it came time to apply to college, she did not have a family structure that was supporting her at all. Her parents and extended family weren’t going to pay any money for her school, and they also, like, weren’t very supportive. She had uncles telling her, like college is a waste of time, you should just join the Marines like everybody else in the family, saying they wouldn’t pay for anything. And this was really, like, hard on Kim on all sorts of levels. Obviously, it was hard financially and practically, but it was also hard emotionally, right, to not have — like, it’s one thing when you’re achieving that social mobility and changing where you came from, but you have a push from behind from your family. That wasn’t her experience at all. And I think it made things even harder, and she was — I mean, part of what made we reporting with her so interesting is that she was very open about the — that kind of family strife that she was going through and these little fights that she was having with her brothers and with her mom as they were trying to figure out, like, do you belong, are you part of the family, do you want to be part of the family, are you trying to leave us, are you trying to leave Taylorsville, are you trying to leave our class? Like, that stuff just goes really deep, I think.

MARTIN: You know, you’ve got a message for lower-income kids or kids from different backgrounds that aren’t so advantaged. Part of your message is don’t lose hope, right?


MARTIN: But what’s your message for people who are from these backgrounds already who are middle class and, you know upper middleclass? I mean, the people who are probably–


MARTIN: — listening to this program are probably more likely to think I don’t feel unrich. I’ve done the best I could. It’s not that I want my kid to be super rich; I just don’t want my kid to be poor.


MARTIN: OK? So, what’s your message to them? I mean, is it just don’t opportunity hoard? I mean do you have a message–

TOUGH: No, and–

MARTIN: — that isn’t just about your moral hazard or whatever.

TOUGH: Yes. I think you’re right. I mean not only is it just no fair to say like it’s all your fault parents, but it also is not effective. It’s not an effective way to change to blame individual parents, especially when they feel so caught up in this systemic pressure to help their kids, right? It’s totally natural to want to help your kids as much as you can. But I think — but I think two things, one is that I think having — understanding what you’re doing. Understanding if you are an upper middleclass or upper class parent, that the higher education system is already tilted in your favor, right? Even if it constantly feels unfair to you and fair to the kid down the block, it is already tilted in your favor. So, at least be mindful of that. And at the same time that you are trying to help your kids do well, I think understand that you can change the system in all the ways that we change systems, the way we vote, what we say to the institutions, where we work. Or if we’re an alumni of a institution or if we’re a parent or if we’re a student, there are ways that we can try to pressure them to change. And I really think that both of those things can happen at the same time.

MARTIN: Who are you saying as rich? Are you talking about Lori Loughlin rich who was alleged to have — given some guy half a million dollars to get her kid into the school of her choice. Or are you talking to a dentist married to a teacher?

TOUGH: I mean when you look at (inaudible) data, like the top — so he talks about the top economy quintile, the top 20 percent of families who are well off, right? And I think a lot of those top 20 percent do not feel particularly well off. And partly that’s just a natural sort of American or human reaction. Like we always conceive a person who’s making a little bit more than us and they’re rich, we’re not rich. But I think that it’s important for those of us who are in that top economic quintile to recognize like being in a top economic quintile, whatever the number is, whatever your expenses are, that means something. You are in the top economic quintile, right? So you’re in — you have privileges that the other 80 percent of the country doesn’t have.

MARTIN: One of the things about your book though is you talk about that other 20 — top 20 percent quintile and what that’s like for their kids, right? And tell me about that.

TOUGH: It’s hard too. I mean I feel like it’s hard to spend more time I think with low income kids. But I — there was this one SAT tutor in Washington D.C. named Ed Johnson. I spent a bunch of time in his tutoring centers in Washington. He makes $400 an hour. He’s in–

MARTIN: Wait, wait — say that — $400 an hour?

TOUGH: And he’s worth it. He’s an exception (inaudible)–

MARTIN: Are we in the wrong business? I think we’re in the wrong business.

TOUGH: I don’t know that we could do this as well as (inaudible) though. And he’s amazing, watching him work with this incredible privilege because he’s really good at his job. And a lot of what he does in his job is tries to calm down these incredibly stressed out (inaudible) kids who he tutors. So, when I was there, I felt like I was understanding two things. One is I was understanding that this admission system isn’t fair even before you get to Lori Loughlin and photo shopping your kid’s face on a water polo player. It’s like the degree to which these kids test scores were improving because of the tutoring they were getting was remarkable. They were getting all sorts of opportunities that they didn’t have before they walked in and started paying $400 an hour. So any system that bases their admissions on that or whether you can afford Ed, is by definition not fair, right? But then I felt like I was having this other experience which is like the actual students who were there, they were great. They were like these really super hardworking very intense young people and I like them all. But they — the one thing that sort of linked them al together is they were under enormous stress. That they had dedicated at the very least the last couple of years of high school and some cases much more to this relentless pursuit of one number, what their SAT or ACT score was and that was in pursuit of one school usually or one set of schools. And so there were lots of ways that their lives in that way were a lot like Shannon’s, the woman from the Bronx. They were all stressed out. And it’s — the stakes were different. The opportunities were different. The experience was not that different.

MARTIN: Partly the problem here is that you’ve got too many people competing for a scarce resource as part of your problem is it shouldn’t be scarce.

TOUGH: Yeah. I mean I think our choice to make higher education scarce is a choice, right? And other moments in American history we have chosen differently and other countries right now are choosing differently. There has been at certain points in the American past this moment where technology changes and the workplace changes and communities get the message our kids need more education. And we respond in — responded in the past in this pretty rational way. Not to say like well let’s ration it and figure out how we can get it for our kids and not give it to other kids. But to say like OK, our community needs more education. We’re going to build — I read about this thing called the high school movement in the early 20th century where suddenly workplaces changed, communities realized that kids need a high school education and all over the country people built — communities built free public high schools. And in just 30 years we went from having about 9 percent of kids getting high school degrees to about 50 percent of the kids getting high school degrees. It was this huge change. And it made sense. And there weren’t a lot of fights about like who should go to high school and who shouldn’t. It was just understood. This was a collectively good. And the same thing is happening right now where we — there are all the signs from the economy, from the labor market place are that our kids need more education and we are responding now in this very different way. And the message that we’re sending to these students is you’re on your own. This is not our job t take care of this. This is your own problem. And that’s just a different kind of response, it’s a different kind of — I mean it’s a much less American response in my opinion. It’s a much less — it’s a much less collective response. It’s just we’ve forgotten this idea that higher education, public higher education benefits everybody.

MARTIN: Paul Tough, thank you so much for talking to us.

TOUGH: Thank you very much.

About This Episode EXPAND

Republican presidential candidate Mark Sanford sits down with Christiane Amanpour to explain why he thinks he can beat Trump. Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner join the program to discuss their careers, partnership and a major retrospective at Lincoln Center called “Two Free Women” celebrating their work. Paul Tough tells Michel Martin how inequality has come to define higher education.