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Knocked flat for a few days by a nasty cold, I had the forced chance to read Paul Tough’s new book, The Years That Matter Most. It’s about four-year colleges in the U.S. and the hoops through which they make students (and prospective students) jump.

Tough has been a journalist focused on education for a long time, and the book reflects that. It has a journalist’s eye for stories and characters, and Tough was able to work on the project long enough to see what happened to some of the characters over time. He’s such a good storyteller that an extended vignette at the end of book about a student at the U of Texas struggling through calculus actually had me in suspense. I don’t see a lot of suspense thrillers about math tests; that Tough was able to slip a thriller into a thoughtful discussion about higher ed policy was all the more impressive.

As someone who went through college anxiety as a student, and then lived it again as a parent, much of what Tough writes rings true. The bubble of selective college admissions gives rise to its own twisted logic, which can be especially frustrating when you’re 17 and expect more of adults. I would have preferred Tough to connect the dots more clearly between an increasingly winner-take-all economy and an increasingly winner-take-all higher education system, but that’s a different book. For that matter, I also would have included much more about community colleges. But within the scope that Tough has defined, it’s thoughtful, well written and humane.

Still, when he turns to the “welders make more than philosophers” meme -- which is factually incorrect, by the way -- he makes a point that should be required reading for anybody who wants to participate in policy discussions about higher education. After noting that welding requires postsecondary training, usually by a community college, he adds:

Meanwhile, if you are able to define welding training, in the public mind, as something separate from college, rather than what it actually is -- a college major like any other -- it allows for other rhetorical sleights of hand. It provides a way to distract public attention from policy shifts that have made it more difficult for young people like Orry to reach the middle class. The most obvious one being that over the past decade, as the make-believe story of the rich welder has grown and spread, public spending on the community colleges where actual young people are trying to learn actual welding has shrunk -- in some states, quite drastically so. (251)

Yes. This. Exactly this. I know this from within my own family. My grandfather dropped out of the ninth grade to work as a tree trimmer, which he eventually parlayed into a job as an electrical lineman for Detroit Edison. With that job, he was able to support a family and send both of his kids to college. Now, lineman jobs require training beyond high school; Brookdale partners with a local utility, JCP&L, to train its linemen. A job that used to present an alternative to college now requires college. But the folks who like to cut funding still latch onto cultural memory as if the economy had frozen in 1950.

Tough’s book is mostly about selective colleges, which may entice political leaders to read it. But as he acknowledges in passing, selective colleges only enroll a small portion of students. To the extent that we accept the premise that seats on the lifeboat are few, then the argument over who gets those seats is important. But to the extent that we reject the premise, many of the battles over “merit” start to look pretty abstract. Although that may sound utopian to American readers, Canadian readers may shrug and wonder what the big deal is. As a polity, Canada has chosen to make its university system strong enough in enough places that you don’t see the same kind of frenzy you see here. It can be done. Canada is not abstract.

Tough praises the University of Texas for its relative diversity, as flagships go, but two-thirds of its seats are given by statute to the top 6 percent of Texas high school grads. By definition, that excludes the vast majority. If we want to reach that vast majority, we need to look at state colleges, community colleges and open-access private colleges, along with the military and the entry-level job market. Tough knows that, and makes passing references throughout indicating a much larger picture, but this book’s focus is clearly on the places most people can’t go.

Tough’s book offers a humane and recognizable portrayal of the struggles of nonrich students at elite places. I’m hoping it also provides an opening for a much larger discussion of what’s available for the vast majority who will never get into, or attend, elite places at all.

In the meantime, enjoy the buildup to the calculus exam. I won’t give away the ending.

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