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

reviewed by Sarah Burman, Matthew Gregory & Gregory Wolniak - December 07, 2020

coverTitle: The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us
Author(s): Paul Tough
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , Boston
ISBN: 0544944488, Pages: 400, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

It is well documented that graduating from college is one of the keys to upward mobility, and especially so for those who graduate from a highly selective institution. In fact, higher education is and remains our societys most prominent vehicle for social mobility, leading some to refer to it as an engine of opportunity (Opportunity Insights, n.d.). Decades worth of data support this claim. However, data also make clear that higher education attainment, and particularly the attainment of a bachelors degree from a highly selective institution, is heavily concentrated among students from higher income families and well-resourced secondary schools. In other words, the socioeconomic rewards that accompany a college education are often missed by many lower income kids who would greatly benefit from higher education. This fact has led many to question if higher education has become more of an engine of inequality than an engine of opportunity (Fischer, 2016).  

Concern over this reality serves as the premise of Paul Toughs 2019 book, The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us. Tough takes readers through a journey into college and beyond, focusing on broad themes like how to prepare, how to get in, and how to succeed. Focus is placed on a wide range of topics, from students understanding of, and desire for, a college education that develops during the high school years, to the history of the GI Bill and how it has facilitated college access for millions of former military members.

Tough ties together numerous important topics through a series of vignettes that showcase a diverse set of individual stories. Toughs central argument is an important one: that the role todays system of higher education plays in promoting social mobility is seriously threatened by disparities in the economic resources among students, as well as the higher education institutions they attend. Across nine chapters, Tough continually advocates for making concerted efforts to better inform prospective college students regarding the application process and the different admissions requirements of institutions. Additionally, Tough discusses how many institutional policies and practices have served to perpetuate inequalities, and points to the ways institutions have tried to address the problem in recent years, with particular attention on the test-optional movement (Fairtest, 2018).

Chapter One opens with a vignette about a first-generation college student who did not gain admission to her dream school. This set the stage for a conversation about how higher education is viewed as the vehicle for upward mobility. Tough describes how upward mobility is not an easy path for many individuals. During the crucial years leading up to college, much of the opportunity-granting powers lie within educational institutions and other social structures. Tough does well to emphasize that a college education is a crucial way to protect one against downward mobility, while arguing that more needs to be done to encourage and support upward mobility. Tough largely focuses on students attending elite institutions and engages the work of Harvard economist Raj Chetty to elucidate the paradox of U.S. higher education: while the U.S. system of higher education has the potential to be a powerful engine of mobility, for most students it functions in the opposite way, as an obstacle to mobility, an instrument that reinforces a rigid social hierarchy, and prevents them from moving beyond the circumstances of their birth (pp. 1920).

Chapters Two and Three address standardized tests, which Tough positions as one of the biggest stressors for getting into college. One of the key highlights of Chapter Two is Toughs interview with Ned Johnson, founder of PrepMatters, a test preparation company aimed at assisting students with techniques to do well on their SATs and ACTs. Johnson claims that many students are held back from reaching their full potential because they are overwhelmed by the stress and scope of these tests, and he encourages students to view them as more of a game. This shift in perspective can help students overcome their anxieties surrounding standardized tests.

The chapter also addresses the problems associated with information deficits surrounding admissions to elite institutions. Tough presents as income-typical and achievement-typical decisions students and their families make in selecting a college, where information deficits act as a barrier to comprehending that ones academic achievement can help to overcome income constraints. For lower-resourced students and families, income-typical decisions often prevail and serve to limit access to more selective institutions. In continuing this narrative, Tough uses Chapter Three to emphasize the power that standardized tests hold within institutions admissions processes, and how the tests perpetuate disadvantages.

Chapter Four focuses on students fitting in and how a students sense of belonging can help promote their success; this is especially important for minoritized populations. As Tough describes through one of the vignettes, exposing students to possibilities for involvement and connection can be an effective way to help students persist to graduation. The chapter provides an in-depth discussion on the overall lack of student diversity among many higher education institutions, especially elite institutions. There is a strong divide between Privileged Poor and Doubly Disadvantaged, which is perpetuated during college. Tough borrowed these labels from Anthony Abraham Jacks The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students (2019). Jack claims that the Privileged Poor are those students who spent their high school years at boarding schools and were able to reap the benefits of having affluent friends. Doubly Disadvantaged refers to low-income students who went to public high school and then to a less selective higher education institution.  

Chapter Five discusses the divide between the Privileged Poor and Doubly Disadvantaged more completely, showcasing the complex decisions made by admissions offices. Tough describes how the college ranking process is biased against students from disadvantaged backgrounds and how different types of aid, especially merit aid, prohibit historically disadvantaged students from accessing selective institutions. Test-optional policies are offered as a strategy for reducing barriers for low-income students.

Incidentally, as we write this review in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is notable that many institutions are now aggressively moving to implement test-optional policies, and the impact of such policy changes will be observable in the coming years. Tough mentions that institutions that have already implemented test-optional policies are seeing more students from challenging backgrounds access and succeed at more selective institutions.

In Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight, Tough focuses on student retention and persistence towards graduation, reiterating the well-established association between higher education attainment and lifetime earnings. Tough notes that college is generally worth the investment, but only if students persist to graduation. Though somewhat over-stated given what we know about the career and economic effects of attending college (e.g., Mayhew et al., 2016), Tough continues to emphasize a sentiment mentioned early in the book: that a student should try to always attend the most selective institution you can get into (p. 39). This theme is revisited multiple times throughout this book. Tough asserts that those who attend more selective institutions are more likely to achieve financial stability and better quality of life as adults, and that those who do not attend selective institutions are less likely to reap the same benefits. Tough cites research claiming that students from different economic backgrounds graduate at comparable rates within the same institution, where the kinds of high-impact practices that do well to encourage retention and persistence towards graduation include peer mentoring, extra tutoring help, and engaged faculty advisors (p. 215).

Tough reiterates that college provides a way to overcome the barriers that have been holding disadvantaged students and their families back for generations, noting that many students will experience hardships, whether personally or academically, during their college years. By providing information about and ensuring access to resources, institutions can help students overcome barriers and complete their degrees. In this vein, across the final four chapters (Chapters Six through Nine) Tough focuses on the power of positive affirmations, finding and using resources, and understanding the financial implications of attending different types of institutions. Tough argues that experiencing adversity and stress promotes holistic growth. The kinds of experiences students gather throughout the years that matter most, contribute to student success both inside and outside of the classroom.

The book takes a somewhat unexpected and interesting turn in the ninth and final chapter, where Tough describes the impacts of the GI Bill as a notable example of a broad policy that has effectively expanded access to higher education. Tough discusses that, against the predictions of many university presidents at the time, students who were traditionally viewed as disadvantaged (based on their lower average test scores and financial resources), GIs excelled in their higher education journeys, with some even outperforming their civilian counterparts. The GI Bill made it possible for many to find a pathway to stability. Juxtaposing the current higher education context to the era marked by the onset of the GI Bill, Tough laments the shift in public attitudes from one that views higher education as a public good that benefits society, to one that view it as a private good solely benefiting the individual. Exemplifying this point, Tough writes: Now technology has changed once again, and so has the job market, and once again young people need more education in order to reach the middle class and support a family. And this time around, our message to those young people is: Youre on your own, you figure out how to get the skills youre going to need. And by the way, heres the bill (pp. 326327). Ultimately, Tough concludes by arguing for the transformative power of higher education and the ideal that higher education is a public good that benefits everyone.

Overall, Tough deserves praise for The Years That Matter Most and the successful way he has woven together vignettes and higher education research throughout much of the book. While his approach was successfully executed in the early chapters, Tough does not maintain the balanced focus on both anecdotes and research. In the early chapters, Tough compliments his powerful use of student vignettes with vital empirical evidence from a variety of higher education experts, including Caroline Hoxby, Raj Chetty, Anthony Abraham Jack, and Tressie McMillan Cottom. As the book progresses, Toughs incorporation of higher education research and empirical evidence dwindles in favor of a more singular focus on vignettes and anecdotes. While powerful, the vignettes and anecdotes would have benefited from a continued emphasis on the broader higher education literature. Doing so would have strengthened the many important arguments put forth.

In writing The Years That Matter Most, Tough highlights the problems experienced in higher education, from systemic inequities to biased standardized testing, information deficits, and the stresses that accompany students wondering if they are making the right choices or if they are good enough to succeed. Simply highlighting these challenges in the context of higher educations historically critical role in promoting social mobility renders the book an important read for anyone who cares about our education system and harbors interest in supporting student success, and particularly the success of lower socioeconomic and underrepresented students.

However, by emphasizing the problems, Tough pays less attention to actionable solutions. For readers who are familiar with the challenges our higher education institutions face in serving students from diverse backgrounds, there was not an abundance of new information presented. This is not to diminish the compelling, inspiring, and meaningful themes highlighted. But it is to say that the book would benefit from paying more attention to the many profoundly successful support programs that have been shown through rigorous evaluations to, in fact, help the most vulnerable students access and succeed in college. For instance, Tough incorporates numerous examples that draw from The City University of New York system, but does not highlight one of its premier multifaceted student success programs that largely serves low-income and historically underrepresented students (Strumbos & Kolenovic, 2017). Similarly, while Tough does well to gives attention to promising programs at Georgia State University (a well-recognized leader in promoting success among low-SES students), he does not mention the kinds of state-wide programs that are benefiting students across the diverse set of public four-year institutions in Georgia (e.g., Complete College Georgia, n.d.), many of which have also been implemented in state systems throughout the United States.

Tough uses the closing lines of the book to call for change, from the ways admissions testing is done and how institutions rely on admissions tests within the larger application process to broader notions of how students are collectively treated within the higher education enterprise. Ultimately, Toughs The Years that Matter Most does well to uncover systemic challenges and sets the stage for more dialogue centered on specific solutions to those challenges. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book is that Tough finds a way to feature significant challenges while reinforcing the core belief that our higher education system remains an essential means for the greater good. For that, Tough should be commended.


Complete College Georgia (n.d.). What is a Momentum Year? The University System of Georgia. https://completegeorgia.org/what-momentum-year.

Fairtest (2018, January 18). ACT/SAT test-optional list tops 1,000 colleges, universities, including more than 300 top-tier institutions. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. https://www.fairtest.org/actsat-testoptional-list-tops-1000-colleges-univer

Fischer, K. (2016, January 17). Engine of Inequality. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/engine-of-inequality/.

Jack, A.A. (2019). The privileged poor: How elite colleges are failing disadvantaged students. Harvard University Press.

Mayhew, M. J., Rockenbach, A. N., Bowman, N. A., Seifert, T. A., Wolniak, G. C., Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2016). How college affects students: Findings from the 21st century (Vol. 3). Jossey-Bass.

Opportunity Insights. (n.d.). How can we amplify education as an engine of mobility? Using big data to help children get the most from school. Author. https://opportunityinsights.org/education/.

Strumbos, D. & Kolenovic, Z. (2017). Six year outcomes of ASAP students: Transfer and degree attainment (ASAP Evaluation Brief: January 2017). Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, The City University of New York. http://www1.cuny.edu/sites/asap/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2017/01/201701_ASAP_Eval_Brief_Six_Year_Outcomes_FINAL.pdf

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 07, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23538, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:27:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Sarah Burman
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    SARAH BURMAN, MEd., is a doctoral student and graduate assistant at the Institute of Higher Education, University of Georgia. Burman holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Georgia College and a Master of Education in Educational Psychology with a concentration in Applied Cognition and Development from the University of Georgia. Her research interests include higher education policy, college accessibility, tuition transparency, and retention.
  • Matthew Gregory
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    MATTHEW GREGORY, MPH, is a doctoral student and graduate assistant at the Institute of Higher Education, University of Georgia. Gregory previously worked as an analyst in the Office of Institutional Research at Northern Kentucky University, holds a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry and classical studies from Hope College, and a Master of Public Health in biostatistics from Emory University. His research interests center on statistical methods in higher education with a focus on student success, institutional outcomes, and institutional effectiveness.
  • Gregory Wolniak
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    GREGORY WOLNIAK, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Institute of Higher Education, University of Georgia. Dr. Wolniak conducts research on the career and economic impacts of college, as well as the factors that influence studentsí pathways into college. He is particularly interested in understanding how college studentsí socioeconomic trajectories are affected by their experiences in college, their educational choices, and their institutional environments, and the degree to which learning and developmental gains students make during college translate to post-college outcomes. Wolniak is a co-author on the 3rd volume of How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence that Higher Education Works (2016, Wiley/Jossey-Bass), and serves as Associate Editor of The Journal of Higher Education. His recent publications appear in AERA Open, Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, and Review of Higher Education.
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