Ep 86: The Dark Side of College: Testing, Admissions, & Inequality

Episode Summary

Paul Tough, NYT bestselling author, shares what he learned in putting together his most recent book The Years That Matter Most. College may have a special place in the American Dream, but Paul enlightens us into what is really happening behind the scenes–it may have you rethinking decisions about higher education.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

College holds a special place in the American Dream. It’s almost every parent’s hope for their kid to receive a four-year education from a United States university and make a name for themself. A college diploma is more than a piece of paper; it’s a marker for status, success, and smarts. It can be a promise of steady income, a supportive social network, and opportunities to continue moving upward. College is also a social rite of passage alongside a mind-broadening four-year journey. But the truth is, that piece of paper is becoming more and more inaccessible every year.

Getting into college seems to be an existentially taxing endeavor in and of itself. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds stress over the SAT and ACT as if the scores signify their worth as a person or determine the entirety of their future. When they’re that young, it can be easy to believe a single test will make or break their destiny and get wrapped up in test-related anxieties. With all the negative side effects these exams have on teenagers, people are beginning to wonder should students take standardized tests?

Parents too can have a difficult time helping their teens find the right college fit. It’s becoming normal for parents to go gray trying to find ways to afford higher education and getting their kids into a “good” college by stressing themselves over their teen’s academic performance. Even financial aid seems to be an elusive privilege to the families who need it most, and student loans loom darkly in the future. With the stress of taking standardized tests, finances, and social pressures from all sides, one question is on everyone’s mind: Is college worth it? And should students take standardized tests?

For the answer to these questions and a closer look at the college admissions process, I spoke with this week’s podcast guest, Paul Tough. In his most recent book, The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Break Us, Paul takes an unflinching stance on the reality of higher education in America to show readers the truth about colleges and universities. From SAT scores to post-graduation salaries, Paul’s extensive research begs (and answers) the question should students take standardized tests?

Admissions: Not As Easy As You Would Think 

In an ideal world, merit would be the ultimate deciding factor when it comes to who colleges and universities choose to admit. But with an increasingly expanding pool of candidates and a finite amount of resources, it’s far more complicated than you’d think. It’s a mix of grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular involvement, socioeconomic standing, and more. It varies from institution to institution, so there’s no one blanket statement that could properly encapsulate just how varied the standards are. So the answer to the questions should students take standardized tests is a bit complicated. 

Written over the course of six years, Paul’s book is packed with studies, research, and interviews with people all across the spectrum of higher education. He recounts the stories of low-income students at leading universities like Princeton and Yale while offering insights from leading SAT tutors, recruiting agents from top banks and law firms, and more. All his findings point to one conclusion—one that might be disheartening to many: When it comes to college, money matters. So should students take standardized tests even though wealth may be a bigger factor in determining what college they get into? 

Struggling colleges and top institutions alike are constantly looking for ways to fund their expensive programs, meaning they look for students from high-income families who’re likely to be solid donors down the road. Furthermore, some institutions may not even prefer a student who is high-performing to high-paying. But why? Wealth is paramount to a plethora of educational institutions.

For instance, a university may very well prefer to admit a high-income student who is an average performing (or even poorly performing) student rather than a high-performing student from a low-income standing. Why? It’s a better investment to admit the average student who they know can afford full tuition rather than the exceptional student who will need help paying for the full tuition. Furthermore, wealthy parents beget wealthy students who therefore will be more likely to donate back to the university in large amounts. 

So should students take standardized tests? The main critique of standardized testing is that it actually doesn’t measure any level of intelligence or skill. It does measure how well one takes a particular kind of test, whether it be the SAT or the ACT. Students who come from wealthier families will be able to afford private tutors, while students who don’t have the same means won’t be able to afford standardized test practice. 

Furthermore, institutions will be concerned about their image as a brand. When asked should students take standardized tests, many colleges say that they care how publications such as the U.S. News and World will rank them in terms of average standardized test scores of the accepted student body. Again, standardized tests don’t measure true level of intelligence, but they are a factor that is measured heavily in the admissions process. 

A student’s socioeconomic background even continues to influence their chances of success even after graduation. Many employers who look to hire from even the most iconic institutions, such as Harvard or Stanford, will prefer to hire employees who are just like them in a social sense. They don’t care as much about grades or academic performance. Employers look for people with similar hobbies and experiences—people they can “shoot the shit” with. It creates a circle of affluence in higher education, and, in Paul’s words, lacrosse bros really do run the world.

With so much inequality that keeps teens from affluent upbringings on top, should students take standardized tests? The tides are turning. Institutions such as Yale and Trinity College have come under fire and been accused as being hypocritical in that they tout themselves as being inclusive while containing the wealthiest student bodies. Measures have been taken over the years to have a more progressive standard of admissions, but as it stands, most institutions’ answer to “should students take standardized tests”  is yes because they are concerned about their bottom line. 

So Is College Worth It? 

As there are so many hoops to jump through when it comes to applying for college, the question isn’t just “should students take standardized tests?” It’s also, “Is college worth it?” There is no one answer that applies to all teens. As every teen is different, every teen will want something different out of life. It’s a perfectly legitimate possibility that the traditional college path might not be appropriate for your teen. But, if your teen is set on pursuing the traditional university path, you should plan for the college preparatory road ahead together. 

While the revelation in Paul’s books can be discouraging, we also talk about possibilities for teenagers from low-income households to enter the system. It’s not an impossibility for underprivileged teens to attend the top tier colleges and universities. Paul’s book also goes into what people active in higher education are doing now to make college more accessible to a wider range of students. Along with discussing the question “should students take standardized tests”, we cover topics like:

  • What the SAT and ACT are really testing
  • The elite-college machine
  • How admissions truly determine who to enroll
  • If college is really becoming more diverse
  • The barriers to higher education

For parents and teenagers entering the college admissions process, this podcast episode is priceless. Paul Tough shines a light on the underbelly of higher education, giving all listeners some much-needed perspective on American education. If you want to know the answer to the question “should students take standardized tests”, listen in!

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So you had this book that did very well, How Children Succeed. Which kind of introduced the world, I think, to a lot of these concepts like grit and perseverance and how character plays a big role in success. You now have a new book, The Years That Matter Most, which is a little bit about kind of the dark underbelly of the higher education system in our country and exposes some really interesting stuff. Why did you choose to write this book now?

Paul: Well, in How Children Succeed, I had one chapter that was about college. It was about this organization called OneGoal and a young woman named Kewauna Lerma, who I watched as she finished high school and started college. And OneGoal’s goal is to help more students, especially low income students get to and succeed at college. And so in order to write that chapter, I did my first sort of shallow dive into the national data about higher education and class distinctions that are going on in higher education today. And I found them kind of distressing, they seemed important, I sort of learned enough to be able to write a few paragraphs to set up that chapter.

Paul: But when I finished How Children Succeeded, I had feeling like that was the next story. That was the part of this big topic about education and equity that I’ve been writing about for more than a decade that I didn’t understand and that seemed really critical. And so I started looking into it, started talking to students, especially, but also educators, experts, analysts of all kinds, started reading more and more about it. And the more that I read, the more people I talked to, the more convinced I was that this was the big education and equity story of our time.

Paul: For a long time, I think people who cared about this question of how do we level the playing field? And education felt like the goal was college, if we can just get students to college, we’ll be fine. But in fact, the inequities that were going on in K-12 education, which are serious and significant and important, that instead of being mitigated in higher education, they were in many ways being made worse.

Andy: The reporting for this book is extensive, it is rigorous. You mentioned in here somewhere, you spent six years reporting this book and that is not surprising at all. You have really gripping stories of students and administrators, SAT tutors, just all of these great characters, researchers who are discovering some really, really interesting things in the data. There’s notes all over the place and you weave it all together in just a delightful way that’s a pleasure to read. This clearly is something that you were really passionate about.

Paul: Yeah, it did take a long time. I’m not sure whether six years is a Testament to my thoroughness or just my inability to get things done in an efficient way.

Andy: Pull the trigger.

Paul: Yeah, exactly. But I did, I went all over the place. I counted up just as I was finishing the book and I visited 21 States in my reporting.

Andy: Wow.

Paul: The thing about higher education is it is this sort of sprawling system.

Andy: Yeah.

Paul: There’s no sort of central higher education headquarters where you can go to and do all of your reporting. And as part of the issue, I think, why higher education is so confusing for students and for parents and for educators too. Which is that it’s not a coordinated system, it is this really a diffused decentralized system with lots of different levels. So I visited philosophy classes at Princeton and visited welding classes at Catawba Valley community college. And what really struck me was that they were both part of the same story and that’s hard to write when you’re trying to encompass something that’s that broad. But it felt important to me, to not just focus on the most selective institutions or the least selective institutions, but to show how that whole system fits together. And what kind of trends and themes are common to all of those institutions.

Andy: The timeline of it, actually, is really great because we get to see these characters and kind of follow them. I mean, you like interview people, not just once, but you go back and you’ve interviewed these people multiple times. And we get to see kind of their stories evolve as some of these are high school students and then they get into college, and we kind of get to follow them. And you find these perfect stories that illustrate the points that are coming out of the data and that are part of this larger conversation and it really just hits the point home.

Andy: So the first thing that I really wanted to talk about here was on page 32, you have this italicized little couple sentences here, which is, “In public every authority figure in higher education will answer this question in the same reassuring way. Of course, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is finding the college that’s the right fit for you as an individual. Future Nobel prize winners and fortune 500 CEOs graduate from Penn state, as well as from Princeton. This generation of affluent high school students and their families are taking college admissions way too seriously and they all need to just take a deep breath and relax.” Is that true?

Paul: There are elements of it that are true. I spent a lot of time among the affluent teenagers of America. My main reporting in that realm was working with a SAT and ACT tutor in the suburbs of Washington, DC-

Andy: Who we’ve had on the show, actually-

Paul: Oh, you’ve had Ned on the show?

Andy: Yep.

Paul: So he’s great, as you know-

Andy: He’s awesome.

Paul: He’s an amazing tutor, he was very generous to me to let me watch him work and introduce me to some of his students. And so he has lots of really interesting ideas about how to help those students do well and ace those tests. But he’s also very aware that the fact that he is giving this advantage to mostly really affluent families is a sign that the system is not really all that fair.

Paul: So for the sorts of students that he is working with, it is true that the fine distinctions about which top 30 college they’re going to go to does not matter all that much. It really is a personal choice where you go to college and how you do in that particular institution has to do with all sorts of random things. Like, the climate where you’re going, the friends you meet, the sort of classes and professors that you end up with. So there is no … despite what I think many affluent families think, there’s no perfect list of which colleges are the best.

Paul: But at the same time in that chapter, in that passage, what I was doing was looking at this research from economists, including this woman, Caroline Hoxby, who’s done some really remarkable longterm historical reporting about how college going has changed in the United States. And what she makes clear is that there is this hierarchy of colleges that is more extreme than it used to be. The most selective institutions now are also the ones that have the most money, that admit the most affluent students, that spend the most on their students, and that have the most positive outcomes for their graduates. At least if you measure outcomes in terms of future earnings. And that schools that are less selective in general spend less on their students, have lower graduation rates, lower future salaries for their graduates.

Paul: And so there’s always been a variety of different types of institutions in the United States, more selective, less selective. But gaps between those schools are growing larger and larger. And so for individual students, I think it is important to tell them to take a deep breath and calm down and where you go is not going to be the end of the world and not going to make or break you.

Andy: Yeah.

Paul: But for the nation, when you look at these gaps that are growing in our colleges, it really is a big issue, that we have some colleges that are mostly educating highly affluent students, that have a ton of money, that are spending a ton of money on students. And then we have lots of other institutions, especially public institutions that are spending much less, that we are actually giving less and less money through state governments and that are having worse and worse outcomes for their students.

Andy: So, I mean, you just kind of mentioned that some schools spend more on their students than others. But the numbers that you provide on actually the next page are shocking, Paul. Low selectivity colleges, you write on page 35, spend as little as $4,000 a year per student. Average selectivity colleges spend between $10,000 and $20,000 per student per year. The higher you climb on the rungs of the selectivity ladder, the faster institutional spending rises. Schools with a 1,400 median SAT score like the university of Maryland, spent about $100,000 educating each student each year. And schools with a 1,500 SAT score spend about $150,000 per student per year, far more than they charge intuition. What the heck is going on with that?

Paul: I mean, I found it surprising as well. And one of the reasons I’ve kind of surprising is like so much of what we heard over the last few years is that, you’re right, most of these private colleges are charging an arm and a leg. Can you believe how much students are spending to get there? But in fact, they are-

Andy: Losing money.

Paul: Right, spending much more on each student than they are taking in.

Andy: It’s actually a great deal.

Paul: It is a great deal. And the students who are getting that “great deal” are mostly rich kids. So they are subsidizing these affluent students to go to their colleges. The reason they do this, and the reason that most of them anyway are thriving economically, despite this apparent paradox of losing money, I never seen. Is what Caroline Hoxby calls the dynasty model of college funding. Which is an institution like Princeton or Harvard or Stanford admits these students, charges them an enormous amount of money, but spends much more on each of them. And the investment is that when they grow up and start software companies or become corporate lawyers, they’re going to become really generous donors. And that seems to be working, especially at the most selective institutions, they are bringing in an enormous amount of charitable donations mostly from alumni, but sometimes from non alumni.

Paul: The problem is that those donations are another place where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. More and more those charitable contributions are going to a very small number of institutions. Again, the institutions that need that money the lease.

Andy: One of the themes that runs through the book is about the nature of testing and specifically the ACT and the SAT and what are they really testing? I think there’s a lot to talk about there, but you’ve mentioned … what’s her name? Hoxby, Caroline Hoxby-

Paul: Yes.

Andy: Research and she has this really interesting study where she sent out these packets to students who were scoring high on the SAT, but were from low socioeconomic status. And try to convince them to take advantage of some of these incentives and apply to higher selectivity schools. And interestingly, had some pretty good findings. But then the college board tried to replicate this and they sent out a massive number of these themselves. And the results, you had to kind of dig pretty deep to find, don’t look that good. So what do you think is going on with that? And what does that mean?

Paul: Well, the first thing I have to say is, I don’t know exactly what’s going on with that. So one of the frustrations about these researchers and the college board not being more transparent about this experiment over the last … gosh, seven years or so, is that we really don’t know. The regular sort of scientific process of trying a pilot and then replicating it and sharing that data and analyzing that data, it really broke down in this case. And so the researchers aren’t talking to the college board, the college board isn’t talking to the researchers. The field is not going through the process it should be going through, of trying to now answer this question.

Paul: But I do have a few theories. What Caroline Hoxby and her colleagues discovered was this really very important phenomenon, which is that there is this cohort of high achieving, low income students all over the country, especially actually in rural areas. Who are not choosing to go to the most selective institution that they could be admitted to. And this is during a period where affluent kids in suburbs all over the country are now following that unwritten rule kind of slavishly. Like if you are in Bethesda, Maryland, you are almost certain to go to the most selective institution that will admit you, that’s just how students make their decisions now. And institutions like US News and World Report make it a lot easier for them to make the decisions that way.

Paul: So her theory, Caroline Hoxby’s theory was that just giving these students information about where they could be admitted was probably going to be enough. What I take away from the experiment and its replication is that, it’s not enough. That the reasons that low income students are not going to super selective institutions is not just because they don’t know that those institutions exist, it’s not just that they’re not applying. It is sometimes that they’re not being admitted, I spend a lot of time in my reporting embedded within the admissions departments in highly selective private institutions, not the most super selective, super wealthy ones. But the ones sort of one tier down that are serving mostly affluent students, but that are in more significant financial trouble. What became clear to me is they’re making a lot of their admissions decisions based just on the income of the students, how much they can pay. And so one of the reasons that those low income students are not going to those sorts of institutions is that those institutions are not admitting them because they can’t afford to.

Paul: The other reason is that those institutions are admitting low income students, but they’re giving them not anywhere near enough financial aid for it to be a reasonable choice for those students to go to that distant private institution instead of a local public institution. And finally, I think there are these cultural barriers that because those most selective institutions have become so dominated by high income students. If you’re a low income kid from a small town in Iowa, going to an Ivy league school just feels really jarring. And-

Andy: It’s not for me.

Paul: Yeah, it doesn’t feel like it’s for me. And I think there have been lots of good efforts to try to convince those students that actually know those places are for you and I think that’s an important message to send. But I think it’s also just the fact that there’s some truth in that too. These institutions, especially as they become more and more dominated by affluent students, they are not doing the hard work of really being open to a socioeconomically diverse student body. And so they can send lots of messages to those students like, “Come on to Princeton, you’ll be welcome here.” But until they really make strides to change the composition of their student body, students are not going to feel that that message is true.

Andy: There is a great story in here about a student named Ben Dormis, who gets mentored by some really helpful people and ends up getting some free tutoring from our buddy Ned. But he also takes this free SAT prep course through the Khan Academy. You kind of talk a lot about the test and about what does it really measure and the effect of free resources like this Khan Academy course versus private tutors like Ned and they kind of teach different things. And then, so this guy I thought was really interesting because he actually tried it both ways and had very, very different results. What does that suggest about the nature of the SAT?

Paul: Yeah. So Ben is a great guy, a great student. I just saw him last fall as I was promoting this book, it was great to connect with him again. So his story is interesting to me just because he’s an interesting person. You have this remarkable experience of being sort of a middle class, working class student who suddenly through a few happy coincidences, suddenly had the experience of being treated like affluent kids are. So he suddenly was having lots of other people spend money on him to get great not just academic coaching, but college application coaching, excellent tutoring, the kind of experience that wealthy teenagers get all the time.

Paul: But he was just sort of dropped into this very foreign world and it worked. His SAT score went way up, he got into Yale. But it gave him this really unique perspective of like, “Oh, this is how it works for those other kids.” And he’s not surrounded by those other kids, he’s also a very conscientious person, very concerned with equity and social justice. And it’s true for him at Yale now, he understands that this system is not fair. I think once you get into a place like Yale, you are inclined to think like, “Well, I got in because the system works and I’m an amazing student. That I belong here and I deserve this.”

Andy: Yeah, right.

Paul: Whereas, Ben, I think because of this sort of series of coincidences, understands he is an amazing student, he does deserve to be there as much as anyone else who’s there.

Andy: Sure.

Paul: But that all of them don’t particularly deserve to be there and that the way that a university like Yale makes those decisions, the way that the whole system that surrounds institutions like Yale works. The way to get to an institution like that is to be from a family that has lots of money or in Ben’s case to just sort of luck into being able to act that way for some crucial months in junior and senior year.

Paul: To go beyond Ben’s own story, I think, the SAT and the ACT, scores on those tests have always correlated really strongly with family income. So the best predictor of how well you do on those tasks is how much money your parents make. Which is not a good way for a test work, but that is the way those tests work. So what was interesting about the period where I was doing my reporting was that the college board under a new president decided that they wanted to take on this issue. That more and more institutions and families were reaching this very clear conclusion that the SAT really reflected family income as much as anything else and they wanted to change at the very least the public perception of that.

Paul: And so they started a whole lot of public fanfare, they started a lot of initiatives to try to level that playing field or be seen as leveling that playing field. And as I report over the course of many years, it became clear that most, if not all of those changes weren’t really changing the underlying inequities in that test. And so Ben, I think, because he did these two different styles of test prep, he was a test case for how well those new interventions were working. And so one of the things that the college board has done is partnered with Khan Academy, actually think this is a great thing for them to do, to offer through the Khan Academy free test prep for the SAT. The problem is that they really exaggerated the effectiveness of that free SAT practice.

Andy: Right.

Paul: It helps, but it hasn’t made the kind of significant shifts that they wanted it to and that they implied that it did when the results first came out. And so Ben was an example of someone who tried Khan Academy, it didn’t particularly work for him and for obvious reasons. It’s a great resource if you are super motivated and you’re already pretty good at school and you know how to use, you know how to make yourself focus on an online system. And you don’t need the kind of mentoring that most of us need with someone to actually say like, “Here’s why you got that one wrong, here’s what you could try to get it right the next time.”

Andy: Right.

Paul: And then he ends up with Ned this amazing, super high paid tutor who was working pro bono for Ben. And he gets exactly that kind of up-close, person to person, intimate help that the best SAT and ACT tutors provide. And his score goes way up exactly the way that so many of those high income students scores do.

About Paul Tough

Paul Tough is the author, most recently, of The Years That Matter Most. His three previous books include Whatever It Takes, Helping Children Succeed, and How Children Succeed, which was translated into 27 languages and spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback best-seller lists.

Paul is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine; his writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, GQ, and Esquire, and on the op-ed page of The New York Times. He is a speaker on topics including education, parenting, equity, and student success.

He has worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s Magazine and as a reporter and producer for the public-radio program This American Life. He was the founding editor of Open Letters, an online magazine.

He lives with his wife and two sons in Austin, Texas.

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