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America’s top colleges are not the engines of social mobility they say they are

Jenny Anderson

For nearly two decades, America’s elite universities have tried to convince the public that they are deeply committed to diversifying their student bodies, breaking up the concentration of rich, white kids who have traditionally filled their campuses to usher in something that more closely resembles the country’s racial and socioeconomic makeup. According to The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, a new book by veteran journalist Paul Tough, the effort has been either half-baked or just shockingly unsuccessful.

Tough spent six years reporting his book, which mixes the stories of students who are trying to get into college and stay there, often against great odds, against the data and economics driving admissions. In an excerpt recently published in The New York Times, he describes the financial pressures creating a need for schools to accept a lot of rich students, and we learn about the financial-aid optimization experts employed by universities, who create algorithms to tell admission officers how much “merit aid” they need to offer those rich kids to get them to say yes.

It’s a perverse system with perverse incentives, and Tough examines them in detail. The result is a deeply reported and damning portrait of fraying American social mobility, persistent inequality, and a handful of influential institutions playing fast and loose with the facts to pay lip service to the ideals of equality while glossing over the reality of raw economics.

The book introduces us to the research of Raj Chetty, the now-well-known Harvard economist who harnessed IRS data to analyze social mobility. As Tough recounts, Chetty’s data shows that students who attend ultra selective colleges in the US become very rich as adults. Those who graduate from Ivy-plus schools—the Ivy League plus Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the University of Chicago—have a 1-in-5 chance of making it into the top 1% by their mid-30s, earning more than $630,000; at other elite schools, the odds are 1-in-11; at community colleges it’s just 1-in-300.

Attending those institutions also closes real income and opportunity gaps. Poor kids earn $76,000 when they graduate, and rich kids earn $88,000—i.e. more, but not obscenely more. And while attending an elite college (compared to no college) increases the odds of making it into the top income quartile by a factor of four for rich kids, for the poor it increases those odds by factor of 14.

But that’s where the happy story seems to end. At Ivy-plus colleges, those elite institutions that propel people to greatness and equalize disparities, more than two-thirds of the students are from rich households and fewer than 4% are from poor households. “Elite college campuses are almost entirely populated by the students who benefit the least from the education they receive there; the ones who were already wealthy when they arrived on campus,” Tough notes. The worst offender: Princeton, which according to the 2016 data is 71% rich and only 2.2% poor.

Tough said this is where the reporting made him angry. “Higher education still works for individual young people,” he said. “But [seeing] that paired with the data for how rare it is, how unusual it is, was what felt really frustrating.”

It is not news that the campuses of elite universities are filled with the progeny of elite society, or that SAT scores correlate to income and not ability. But Tough’s reporting also requires readers to meet the students and admissions officers and teachers who live in the grips of what one veteran admissions officer quoted in the book calls “the admissions-industrial complex.” The result is a clear-eyed portrait of what a stacked game it really is against smart, poor kids with epic determination but zero social capital, while schools continue to pave the way for kids who get in simply because they can pay.

Inside the machine

Readers will meet Ivonne, who makes it to the University of Texas because she is second in her San Antonio class (Texas automatically allows the top 6% of students from Texas schools to pick their choice of school in the UT system) but who then struggles for various reasons, including the fact that the quality of the calculus class she took in high school was nothing like that of the calculus class the rich kids took in theirs. She spends her first semester lost, failing test after test, internalizing the message that she does not belong. Her sister tells her that poor Latina kids like them just don’t fit in; her mother encourages her to come home so she can cook for her. After spending her high school years thinking she was smart, she suddenly suspects she was wrong.

Now consider the backdrop: Only a quarter of college students born into the bottom half of the income distribution will get a bachelor’s degree by age 24; meanwhile, 90% of those in the top quartile will get their degree, Tough writes. Is that because poor kids are not as smart? Hardly. According to data from the College Board, in 2018, kids whose parents earned $40,000-$80,000 a year had an average grade point average (GPA) of 3.6; kids whose parents earned more than $200,000 had a GPA of 3.7. But SAT scores show a very different picture: the rich kids on average score 169 points higher. That’s because rich parents can hire tutors (we meet a particularly endearing one in the book) to make their otherwise middling children look great. Kids whose parents earn more than $200,000 have a 1-in-5 chance of scoring above 1400 (out of 1600) on the SAT; those who earn less than $20,000 have a 1-in-50 chance.

But back to calculus, the class with which Ivonne is struggling: It turns out only 48% of US high schools even offer calculus; one in three private schools have it and one in six public schools. Schools with white kids are twice as likely to offer it as schools with lots of black and Latino kids, and kids from families who earn in the top quintile are four times as likely to take it in high school as those from families in the bottom quintile, Tough writes. And yet, in 2017 at Harvard, 93% of the incoming freshman class had taken it.

If taking calculus is an indication of student dedication or college readiness, it’s a lot easier for rich kids than poor ones to come across as dedicated and ready. Meanwhile, when Ivonne sits in class with other bright kids who seem to get the material faster than she does, she feels these differences in every bone in her body. She wonders, constantly, if she should quit.

Ivonne is at the University of Texas Austin at a moment when the school is trying to help low-income kids succeed, and offering up a template for how to fix the mess that Tough describes. We meet Uri Treisman, a calculus teacher with his own compelling story, who has spent the better part of his career trying to figure out how to get low-income and minority students to succeed at school in part by first succeeding at freshman calculus. He is relentless in his efforts to convince his students they are mathematicians, that they belong; he makes them work and gives them guidance, puts them in small groups, schedules extra sessions. He knows his students intimately; he tracks them, he supports them. He forces them to see their own potential but also catches them when they are about to give up.

Treisman’s efforts are part of a larger initiative at the University of Texas Austin led by David Laude, a former chemistry teacher turned “graduation rate champion,” to increase the share of kids graduating in four years from 50% to 70%. The group not graduating in four years, he found, was disproportionately made up of black, Latino, and first-generation college students. The four-year graduation rate for students who were first in their families to go to college was more than 20% below that of kids whose parents had gone to college.

Rather than try to get more rich kids graduating sooner—the low-hanging fruit—to hit his target, Laude decides to focus on the bright, low-income kids who drop out at way higher rates. He does this by doing the kinds of things Treisman does, finding ways to give extra support to kids who need it without stigmatizing them for it.

Tough observes one of Treisman’s teaching assistants coaching Ivonne at a real low point. “You really are in a different place than these students,” the TA tells her. “[I]t is unfair; you are at disadvantage. But that fact has nothing to do with you: you are a great mathematician, and if you want to claim that destiny, you can, and we will support you.” Adds Tough: “That’s a complicated message, it has a lot of parts to it. But when an institution can get that right, it can be transformative.”

Laude succeeds in his mission: in 2012, the four-year graduation rate for students eligible for Pell grants (connoting a need for financial assistance) was 40%; by 2018, it was 61%. First-generation college students moved from 41% to 62%; black students from 37% to 58%. That’s because the reasons poor kids fail have way less to do with ability and way more to do with myriad struggles involving identity, financial pressure from home, jobs, and a profound sense of imposter syndrome. To those who make the argument that elite universities don’t accept more low-income kids because low-income kids can’t hack it and drop out more, Tough offers compelling counter-evidence: “What UT suggests to me is that they absolutely can hack it,” Tough says. “They just need a little bit more effort and colleges can, and should, do that.”

Higher education in America traditionally operated from a place that it was not the job of colleges and universities to help kids succeed. That was the work of high school teachers; the job at the college level was simply to separate the wheat from the chafe. But that view is changing now. Tough is reassured that at least two of the Democratic presidential candidates are talking up the importance of higher education and how to make it more accessible to more people—particularly kids who don’t have all the advantages that come with wealth and privilege. Meanwhile, parents of privileged kids should probably worry a little less about how many opportunities their kids have, and stop pretending there are too few. A Harvard-or-bust mentality still leaves plenty of opportunity for rich kids rejected from Harvard.

“You don’t have to freak out about this versus that university,” Tough says. “But we as a society need freak out that this very valuable source of social mobility is being so unevenly distributed.”


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