‘The system really is unfair’: Paul Tough talks test prep, college admissions, and his new book

Paul Tough is equal parts hopeful and disheartened.

The journalist known for “How Children Succeed” spent the last few years examining the American college landscape. His findings are the focus of his new book, “The Years That Matter Most.”

Those findings are complicated — and sometimes contradictory. On the one hand, Tough highlights individuals and organizations working to improve college access and support for the low-income, first generation students he profiles, like KiKi Gilbert at Princeton and Ivonne Martinez at the University of Texas. 

Yet the system as a whole still drags its feet, with many institutions continuing to privilege wealthy students over those from low-income backgrounds. The College Board comes in for especially pointed criticism for the SAT’s role in college admissions and for what Tough argues is a lack of transparency around its research. 

When you look at the big picture, Tough said, “It is hard to be as optimistic.” (Find our full analysis of Tough’s claims about the College Board here. The College Board has issued its own lengthy response disputing aspects of the book, which you can find here.)

Chalkbeat spoke with Tough about the book and what his research means for students. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Chalkbeat: This book, with its emphasis on systems and institutions in higher education, has a very different focus from “How Children Succeed.” Where did you get the idea for this book, and how was it influenced by your previous work? 

Tough: Well, the original impetus to do this book came out of the one chapter of “How Children Succeed” that is about higher education, where I wrote about this organization called OneGoal in Chicago and especially about this one woman, Kewauna Lerma. I started for the first time to look into some of the overall data for how higher education was functioning in the United States, and I was really struck — the imbalances in higher education seemed even more extreme and more important than the imbalances in K-12 education. As I was writing that chapter, I thought there was a lot more to understand, and so once “How Children Succeed” was done I started trying to figure out how to write about it.

You seem very critical of the standardized testing machine — the weight put on the SAT and ACT in college admissions, the money poured into test prep, and the College Board itself. Yet you spend a lot of time describing Ned, an elite $400/hour SAT tutor, and you paint him in a very positive light. Why?

I really like Ned. I think Ned is very honest about what he’s doing and the role that test prep has in college admissions. So I think you’re right — I think I am critical of the emphasis that college admissions places on standardized test scores, but I think what I’m most critical of is any attempts to kind of conceal what’s going on. When I’m critical of the College Board, I think that’s what I’m critical of. I think that they have put a lot of emphasis in recent years on some projects to try to improve equity in higher education. And when I looked more deeply into a lot of those projects, they really weren’t having a lot of impact. I think the reality is that the SAT still plays the role in college admissions that it always has, which is that it is one more advantage for kids coming from affluence and one more obstacle for kids who are coming from low-income families and communities. 

You talked in the book about what the College Board has tried and failed to do when it comes to leveling the playing field for low-income students. Do you think the college process would be more equitable without the College Board at all? 

Well, I want to separate the College Board from the test it administers — the SAT — and the ACT, which I feel is just as much of a problem. I’m not quite ready to say we should do away with those tests altogether. But I do think that when colleges go test-optional, it allows them to consider a broader array of students and to admit students they wouldn’t be able to admit otherwise. And I think that’s a really positive thing. 

There’s clear evidence that family income and test scores correlate really highly. They correlate more highly than high school GPA does with family income, and so they are always going to be an instrument that makes it easier for institutions to admit more rich kids and harder for them to admit more poor kids. I think they should be doing the opposite. 

Do you feel like the tide is turning in the direction of test-optional? In 15 years, do you think colleges will still require the SAT or ACT?

I don’t know. Certainly there are advocates who feel like the tide is turning, but it’s turning pretty slowly. When I was doing my reporting at the University of Chicago [which has test-optional admissions], that was a big deal for the test-optional movement, because it was definitely the most selective institution that had ever done that. I would not be surprised if in the next few years an Ivy League or equivalent institution decides to go test-optional. Those institutions really don’t need those tests; they can admit excellent freshman classes without looking at kids’ test scores, and I think it’s possible that one of them would make that decision. I think that would be the real turn of the tide. 

I don’t think that they’re going to disappear altogether. I think they make it easier for college admissions people to make their decisions, for better or worse. And I think there’s something in us as humans that really likes the kind of competition sense of being able to put a specific number on kids.

I want to home in specifically on the College Board’s replication of the Realize Your College Potential packets. That was a strategy that was proven independently to improve college access for low-income students. Then the College Board tried it themselves, and it didn’t work, but they did release the results, although that was about six years later. Is it fair to criticize them for suppressing research?

I mean, they released the results sort of after my book had gone to press, so I wasn’t able to include those. What strikes me is two things about the way they reported the results. One was, that they knew these results years ago and they chose not to reveal to the public that this replication wasn’t working. And I think there was a huge disparity between how much emphasis they put on the beginning of the process. There was a cover story in the New York Times Magazine in which David Coleman was saying this was going to do a lot to level the playing field, and [that stands in contrast to] how quietly and how late in the process they announced the data that suggested that it wasn’t working. 

One last question about the College Board: you compare the College Board’s efforts to delegitimize criticism about the SAT to the tobacco industry’s misinformation campaigns. Tell me more about that.

I was talking, in that case, about this one particular scholarly book that was edited and compiled by either people who worked for the College Board or people who had worked for the College Board. The main case that I think it was trying to make was to say that test-optional admissions didn’t work and wasn’t more fair than using tests, in part because of this idea that rich kids were benefiting from grade inflation. And I don’t think it’s true, that rich kids were benefiting from grade inflation. 

When you look at all of the data together, it’s clear that SATs tend to correlate most with income. And so I felt that the book … was there to kind of muddy the waters the same way that various corporations had tried to muddy the waters with research, including about climate change, including about the relationship between tobacco and cancer years ago. It wasn’t publishing things that were untrue, it was just trying to make it seem like it wasn’t set, like it was a place where there was still argument. Is the climate really getting warmer? Scientists disagree. Are SATs benefiting poor kids or rich kids? Scientists disagree. Whereas the fact of the data is really clear. 

In discussing the factors that help low-income students persist in college, you often cited individual professors or programs that were successfully promoting belonging. Why do you think belonging is so powerful, and how can colleges cultivate it at scale?

I think there’s some really interesting research in the last decade or so about the power of belonging in helping college students, especially first-generation college students, persist and do better in college. The studies of it are pretty clear and scientific, but belonging is a pretty squishy idea. There’s no simple way to make someone feel like they belong. So partly it was the research that influenced me. But even more so, I think, it was the fact that the educators and the administrators who I thought were doing the best job of creating an environment where students were able to succeed, especially first-generation college students, they were putting a lot of emphasis on belonging in different ways. 

Uri Treisman, the calculus professor who I followed at the University of Texas, was in his own way doing an amazing job of emphasizing that feeling and creating this real sense of togetherness and unity and belonging in his class. But I thought of some of the same things that Arrupe college, this two-year, relatively new institution in Chicago connected to Loyola University where Father Katsouros, the Jesuit priest who was the dean of students at that institution — he thinks about belonging all the time.

In the book you give lots of encouraging examples of specific colleges or individuals or programs that are helping low-income students access and persist in college, and you just named a few in relation to belonging. But these are just pockets of a vast university system. Do you find these examples from your research to be representative of larger trends in higher education, or just bright spots?

It’s a good question, and I’m not sure. I think there is a shift going on in higher education toward institutions taking more responsibility for their students’ success, and I do think that is shifting in more and more institutions. In higher education, there always was this kind of sink-or-swim ethos that dominated the way that a lot of higher education educators and administrators thought. “That’s not our job to help our students succeed; it’s their job to figure out college. And the ones who don’t succeed weren’t meant to succeed.” And I do think that that idea is changing. 

More institutions understand, first of all, that it’s in their interest to graduate more students, but also that it doesn’t take a whole lot of work to create that sense of belonging — to give those struggling students the help that they need to succeed. And that when you do that, you not only have more graduates, but you have a more level playing field, a more representative collection of graduates. It’s hard to measure in any kind of empirical way, but I do think that’s changing. 

There are lots of other things that I don’t think are changing. I don’t think admissions is getting more fair. Certainly there are bright spots that I focus on, but what I’m trying to do in this book is look more systemically at how higher education functions and who it functions for, and when I look at that, I don’t feel particularly optimistic. 

Based on your research, what advice would you give to colleges?

I think that the most highly selective institutions out there can do a lot right now in terms of admissions. These are institutions that don’t really depend on tuition for their income. Right now they are admitting a whole lot of rich kids and not many poor kids, and they can just change that. That’s not actually that complicated a problem to solve. 

For the much larger number of private institutions that don’t have those sorts of financial resources, I think the thing that they could do to be most helpful is to be more honest about what kind of pressures they’re under and how they affect admissions. So I wrote a chapter, as you know, about enrollment management. And I talked to a lot of admissions people, and they are under an enormous amount of pressure. And those pressures really don’t get talked about. 

And then the third kind of institutions are public institutions, especially sort of less elite public institutions. I feel like those institutions need to do two things. One is, I think [they] really need to stay committed to the goal of public higher education and to see that as their mission, because I think that’s the most important sector of higher education. And I think that they also need to sort of tell the story of what they’re doing and help voters and citizens and legislators understand how our trend toward defunding higher education over the last decade or two is really a step in the wrong direction. These are the institutions that I think could do the most to level the playing field, to increase the number of young people with the kind of credentials they need to do well in today’s economy, and right now we’re just not helping those institutions enough. 

Where does all this leave a student from a low-income family going to college in the next few years? After all your research, are you hopeful for that student, or worried? Why?

For individual students — and it was a remarkable two years getting to hang out with lots of young people — for the most part their stories are incredibly inspiring and hopeful. These are super smart kids who are experiencing a lot of difficult things in terms of achieving the social mobility they deserve. But many of them are really thriving — KiKi Gilbert, this young woman who’s at Princeton, or Ivonne Martinez at the University of Texas — they are accomplishing remarkable things in their lives, they’re going to be really much better than the places they started as a result. But when I look at the system as a whole, it is hard to be as optimistic as I feel when I look at the stories of individual students. 

The system really is unfair, and it’s not getting more fair. If anything I think it’s getting less fair. And I don’t think that we right now are exerting the kind of public will on that system, and exerting it in the right way to make it more fair and more equitable. I’m sort of an eternal optimist and I think that could change, and one of the reasons I wrote this book was to try to help people connect those dots — to see where those inequities in higher education come from and what kinds of changes would be necessary to alleviate them.