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Admissions scandal highlights ‘disconnect’ between colleges’ message and action

The college admissions scandal that engulfed several Hollywood figures this year has essentially delivered a public indictment of some elite institutions. It has also sparked a larger conversation about admissions, access and inequity throughout American higher education. Paul Tough has written a book about this very topic, titled “The Years that Matter Most,” and he joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the college admissions scandal.

    Amna Nawaz takes a look beyond today's sentencing of a prominent actress.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This college admissions scandal, which includes Felicity Huffman and other wealthy parents, has essentially turned into a public indictment of some elite institutions.

    But it's also spurred a larger conversation about admissions, access and inequality throughout our system of higher education.

    Paul Tough's new book focuses on these very questions. It's called "The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us."

    And Paul Tough joins me now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So, tell us, these high-profile cases like the one involving Felicity Huffman, in the larger world of college admissions, are these the exceptions or the rule?

  • Paul Tough:

    Well, I think they are the most extreme expression of the kind of inequality, the extra advantages that affluent parents have.

    Certainly, the — Felicity Huffman and the other parents who were caught up in the scandal went a little crazier than other affluent parents. But the competition, the pressure around college admissions makes a lot of affluent parents behave a little crazy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But the message we get from colleges, from higher education institutions is, look, we're here to reward academic excellence. We want to build diverse communities. That's what we're looking for in the college admissions process.

    Is that actually the case?

  • Paul Tough:

    In some cases, it is, but there is a real disconnect between the way that colleges and the institutions that are part of the college system talk about equity and merit, and what you actually see when you look at the populations of American colleges and universities.

    At the most highly selective institutions, the student bodies are almost entirely made up of students from the top income quintile, and students from the bottom income quintile are almost entirely absent.

    So these colleges aren't in any way a reflection of the breadth of the American population. They're really dominated by the affluent.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And is that story true regardless of the type of institution, whether you're looking at elite institutions, like the Harvards and the Stanfords, or state schools? Is that the same story everywhere?

  • Paul Tough:

    No, there's a real variation.

    So the most highly selective institutions, which are mostly private institutions, are dominated by the affluent. But when you look at the less selective institutions, including community colleges, those are the institutions where low-income students are more likely to go, and those are the institutions where we spend the least on our students.

    I mean, I feel like the flip side of the college admissions scandal is the scandal of how little we are now spending on public higher education. Over the last couple of decades, we have cut our public funding on higher education by 16 percent per student.

    And that means that the kind of public universities where most low-income students go are not only raising tuition; they're also having to cut corners. And that really affects the education that the students are getting.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Help me understand from the college admissions perspective, though. Is this just about them admitting the students who've had access to better education and therefore have a leg up when it comes to the admissions process? Or are they making a different decision based on who can pay and what they can pay?

  • Paul Tough:

    It depends on the institution.

    So there are some institutions, a handful of institutions, where the endowment is so huge that they don't really depend on tuition revenue at all. So the reason why they are admitting so many high-income students, I think, has more to do with their culture than anything else.

    But for a large number of highly selective private institutions, there are real financial pressures. About a quarter of those institutions are now running a deficit, and many more are really close to that line.

    And so when they're selecting students to admit, they have got to think, more than anything else, about tuition. They're really looking for customers. And that means they're looking for affluent students.

    And for admissions officers, that leads to this real sort of cognitive dissonance, because they know that they're looking for customers who can pay, but the communications department and the president's office at their colleges often talk about merit and diversity and fairness instead.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Paul, help us understand how college admissions officers are making these decisions.

    You focused on one institution in particular. What did you find there?

  • Paul Tough:

    Yes, I spent some time at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

    And the admissions director there, a man named Angel Perez, was and is trying to change the way that Trinity does its admissions to become more diverse in both socioeconomics and race.

    And, in some ways, he's succeeding. He's making some definite strides. But what I understood spending time with him is all of the pressures that exist for him and other admissions officers, the pressure of early admissions, the pressure of sports, and the pressure of SAT scores.

    All of these factors are weighing on admissions directors like Angel, and they are almost all pointing in the opposite direction. The pressure that you get when you're in the admissions office is, admit more rich kids. And if you want to push back against that, it's often quite difficult.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have argued in your book that parts of the admissions process, things like the SAT, right, that even those give an unfair advantage in many ways to wealthy students or students from a wealthy background, that they can get tutors, that they can get their SAT scores pumped up.

    That helps to justify their admission in many cases. The College Board, I should mention, has pushed back on that. They say that the more information they can provide to college admissions members, the better, that SATs are just one of the factors that should be considered as a holistic admissions process.

    What do you say to that?

  • Paul Tough:

    Well, there's a longstanding debate in higher education and particularly in admissions on the value of the SAT.

    And most people agree that your high school grades are the best predictor of how well you will do in college. And then, if you add the SAT to that factor, you get a slightly better prediction of how well a student will do.

    What people who are opposed to the use of the SAT in college admissions say is that that slight statistical benefit that you get from adding the SAT is outweighed by the fact that the SAT — that SAT scores correlate so closely with family income.

    So when you use SAT scores in admissions, it's hard not to admit a lot of rich kids and admit very few poor kids. And so that — that's the pushback against the College Board's case.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Paul, the story we have been told is that college can be the place where there's the engine of opportunity, right? Regardless of where you came from, college can be the place where you can change the trajectory of your life.

    What you're telling us is, there are some tilts in the system, some inequalities that are institutionalized based on the wealth that you grew up in.

    So can it be fixed? What could be done right now to make it more equal?

  • Paul Tough:

    Well, I would say that both — both things are true.

    So, absolutely. For individual students who I followed in the reporting for my book, higher education is still a fantastic engine of social mobility. If they are the lucky ones who are admitted to the institutions that give them the biggest boost, their lives change, absolutely.

    But there is no question that the system as a whole is tilted. There are advantages at — on all levels that favor the affluent over everybody else.

    So I think there's two things that need to change. On the private, highly selective side, it is really an admissions question more than anything else. And those admissions departments need to make different decisions and use different criteria in the way they're selecting students.

    But on the — in the system as a whole, what really needs to change is the way that we fund public higher education. I think part of the reason that families are so competitive about those most highly selective private institutions is, we don't have a robust enough public system to compete with that private system.

    If we go back to funding our public institutions, they will become the real engines of social mobility.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Paul Tough, he is the author of "The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us."

    Thank you very much.

  • Paul Tough:

    Thank you.

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