cover image The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us

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

Paul Tough. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-544-94448-0

In this fascinating study, education journalist Tough (How Children Succeed) argues persuasively that access to an elite college education, which in the U.S. is popularly believed to be a meritocratically distributed social equalizer, is in fact distributed in ways that reinforce existing economic divisions. In the U.S., a college degree remains both a key to a secure job and a cherished ideal for many, especially high-achieving low-income students. But racially marginalized and low-income students face barriers to accessing that economic mobility, among them the “fickle and unpredictable” nature of admissions calculations; the income-dependent nature of SAT scores; the culture shock and “profound disequilibrium” nonwhite, nonaffluent students experience at highly selective schools; and the difficulties low-income students face in remaining enrolled. Tough vividly illustrates these claims with rigorous readings of data and portraits of individual students, researchers, staff, and faculty. He examines initiatives that aim to level the playing field, and finds that great persistence and time-intensive mentoring and teaching are required for lower-income students to succeed. In the final chapters, he calls for politicians shaping educational policy and funding to promote more equitable structures, drawing parallels with the public high school movement and the GI bill. His analyses of data are sound, his portraits of students and teachers sympathetic, his argument neatly structured, and his topic one with wide appeal. This well-written and persuasive book is likely to make a splash. [em](Sept.) [/em]