Depending on the circumstances they were born into, students might see these tasks as steps toward claiming a birthright or as giant obstacles that stand between them and a future of economic security. The former are helped along by tutors, consultants, and nagging parents; the latter scrape up money for test-taking fees and get what help they can from overworked school counselors. In his new book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, Paul Tough explores this divide, and interrogates whether going to college has become a privilege of wealth and whether it can still lift people out of economic insecurity.
Over six years, Tough visited big universities and small liberal arts colleges and community colleges, speaking with more than a hundred students. He writes movingly about students who are trying to navigate the confounding, expensive, and intimidating process of getting into and staying in college. Tough has written several books about education. This new book has some pretty depressing moments—especially about the current state of standardized testing. But he also finds plenty to be hopeful about.