How Harvard makes the U.S. less equal

A new book examines injustices in American higher education

Toronto-born American author Paul Tough has written for years about subjects related to education, equity, poverty, children and parents, most notably in his 2012 bestseller, How Children Succeed. In his latest book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, Tough turns his attention to what has become—especially in the wake of the recent college admission scandal, when affluent parents broke the law to pave their children’s paths into elite schools—a burning issue south of the border. American higher education, Tough argues, is at once the ticket to wealth for young people and one of the most powerful forces for inequality in the contemporary United States.

Q: Let me start by quoting you. “In sharp contrast to other ages and other cultures,” decisions made by and for Americans as they leave high school are critical in determining their lives. How unique is America in that regard?

A: Everywhere, what happens after high school plays an important role in determining a young person’s life. But it’s more extreme in the United States because the higher education marketplace there is so stratified. The stratification [is] based so much on not just your academic abilities but your family’s financial status.

Q: You note that the so-called college premium—the amount of money earned over a lifetime on account of having a B.A.—is misleading. The real financial rewards now go to graduate degrees.

A: What’s confusing about the statistics is that both those things are true. There is definitely a college wage premium—people with a B.A. do earn a lot more money than people without any higher education credential. But most of the reason a B.A. pays off right now is because it allows you to go on to get an M.A., Ph.D. or professional degree, and then make a ton of money. That’s the experience of a lot of Americans who have B.A.s but find they are still not getting ahead the way that someone with just a B.A. would have done a couple decades ago.

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Q: Attending elite schools—the Ivy League and a few peers—does matter economically. Their graduates have a one in five chance of hitting the top one per cent of U.S. incomes ($630,000 a year) by their mid-30s. Meanwhile, the gap between average annual incomes for graduates of elite schools who come from affluent families versus those who grew up in poverty is noticeable but not extreme—$88,000 to $76,000. Why do you link these two different stats together?

A: Because those two facts show that super-selective colleges really do pay off in big ways, especially (of course) at the very top. They also create middle-class graduates and are an effective way of reducing the advantages that rich kids bring with them to Harvard or Princeton or Stanford. Yes, no matter what, the rich will do better, but their advantages are minimized. In that way, these institutions are vehicles for social mobility. They do work well for low-income kids when they get there. They just don’t get there often: only four per cent of elite school admissions come from poorer students.

Q: Which raises the question of how students are selected by universities. In your book, the role of the SAT admissions test comes across as malignant.

A: Well, I don’t think the SAT itself is a force for evil as a test. It’s the way that it is used. The College Board, which runs it, has launched a PR campaign trying to convince the world that the SAT is a force for equity when the evidence shows the opposite: the emphasis on SAT scores in college admissions tends to favour the wealthy and disadvantage low-income kids. My book pokes holes in its case that the benefit you get from test prep is minimal.

Q: You devote several pages to Ned Johnson, the $400-an-hour “teen whisperer” of Washington, D.C. There is clearly value for money—for those who have the money—in sending your kid to his tutoring service.

A: Johnson is a great guy to spend time with, and it was fun watching him work. I would keep meeting one kid after another whose scores would go up by huge percentiles, and they would go from not being able to get into the institution they wanted to being admitted. The thousands of dollars that their parents paid to have Ned tutor them was arguably a really good investment.

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Q: There are other legal value-for-money methods, such as getting on the Z list. That’s a route for the children of ultra-wealthy donors like Charles Kushner, whose son Jared (Donald Trump’s son-in-law) made it to Harvard after his father gave millions to the university. What about the illegal ways in, the ones exposed by the cheating scandal?

A: The book was just off to the publishers when that broke, so I could only add a couple of paragraphs. I put them right next to the section about Ned Johnson, because Ned is definitely different from conman Rick Singer. But, at the same time, the instincts of the parents who went to Singer are not totally different from those of Ned’s parents. They get that the system is unfair, and if money is going to make the difference, they are willing to pay it. I read some of the wiretaps of parents talking to Singer. The way they spoke was exactly the way Ned’s parents spoke to him—they didn’t sound at all like a criminal conspiracy—a lot of “Oh my God, can you believe we have to do this?” But this wasn’t about hiring an effective tutor, but [was about] having someone else take their child’s test or sending Singer a photo so he could photoshop it onto an athlete’s body. In the transcripts, Singer talks of the front door, the side door and the back door. Front door, you do what you’re supposed to do—get the marks, ace the SAT. Back door is Kushner. Singer says, “I’m the side door”—guaranteed entry, and cheaper than the multi-million-dollar donation.

Q: The more selective a university is in admissions, the more it rises in the rankings, the more prestige it gets, the more the best and brightest apply to it, the more wealthy donors give to it and the more resources it has for already well-off students. Your account of Harvard’s 2013-18 fundraising campaign demonstrates all of that.

A: Harvard was looking for $6 billion in endowment—more than all but 10 universities have, period—and the five-year campaign came in at $9.6 billion. Elite universities now have endowments of about a million dollars per student compared to $300,000 in 1996, while the non-elite schools are still at 1996’s $35,000 each. And every incoming Harvard class is richer than the previous year’s: in 2013, 14 per cent of Harvard students came from families with over $500,000 in annual income; now it’s 17 per cent.

Q: The rich get richer, with a vengeance.

A: Rich people donating to the most exclusive universities seems inevitable, a matter of their own prestige, and also crazy. There is this impression that the elite institutions have been able to create: they are perceived as being the institutions that make the world a better place. Obviously in lots of ways they do that, in terms of their biotech research and the like. But they are also powerful instruments for social inequity. Harvard makes the United States less equal. The really crazy thing about it is that most of the people who work in those institutions, including at the highest levels, are liberal Democrats who care about equity and diversity. I feel all these people are one potential audience for my book. Maybe a few of the billionaires, instead of [giving] one more billion for the giant Harvard endowment, will fund a community college or a public university, some place that makes a difference for low-income kids.

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Q: Meanwhile, a quarter of U.S. private colleges are in the red, and most are offering massive tuition discounts, which again mostly benefit the well-off, since only 11 per cent of students now pay the full freight.

A: Yeah, exactly. The tuition-discount spiral means private colleges have to keep giving bigger discounts to get enough kids to stay afloat. Schools like Harvard have their enormous endowments and donors, but at most institutions, tuition keeps the lights on. You need to admit people who can pay it. So there are all these pressures for admissions people and a great sense of anxiety in their profession. They have to make offers to four times as many applicants as they can admit, because of turndowns, and they have to make sure the ones who accept are the right mix of scholarship students and students who can pay tuition.

It all goes back to the forces of stratification. Universities are now competing for a diminishing group of paying students. The so-called CFO special—a student who doesn’t have particularly good grades (so no scholarship) but enough family money to pay full tuition—is the prize. Ironically, though, such students are now so sought after they can pay less, because they are offered better and better discounts. In state universities, there is the same pressure to admit out-of-state students because you can charge them more, even though the whole reason for state universities is to create social mobility and to educate kids in that state. Reduced funding and higher tuition costs in state universities make for maybe the most toxic shift that’s happening in American higher education.

Q: That is the first thing we have spoken of that brings Canada to mind, the pressure or temptation to admit international students so you can charge more. Otherwise the two university systems seem very different.

A: I don’t know the Canadian system well, but it seems more equitable and promotes more mobility for more people. It’s reflective of the Canadian economy and the Canadian social economy, both different than the American economies. In Canada there’s more of a middle class, which is shrinking in the United States, something both reflected in and propelled along by the stratification of higher education. I feel like Canada has a more middle-class higher education system in the same way that it has a more middle-class-dominated economy.

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Q: The effects of university stratification are bad enough in terms of social mobility, but you see other disadvantages too.

A: It may be counterintuitive, but I think it also hurts the rich kids. Not financially, since they benefit in all kinds of ways. But one thing that I found sitting in Ned Johnson’s office, watching him work with these affluent teenagers: it seemed like a pretty rough adolescence. There’s an enormous pressure in those communities in the last couple of years of high school. They’re just all focused on where you get into college.

Q: Once upon a time, I suppose, there were Harvard families and Yale families and you simply knew Junior would go there and, like George W. Bush, get his gentleman’s C. You write that, among the teens you met, there was more fear about being cut off somehow from higher education than hope about its possibilities.

A: Exactly, and although that’s a crushing weight on poorer kids, it’s also infected a lot of stressed-out and miserable affluent teenagers. When your adolescence focuses only on “Where do I go to college?” and “What is my SAT score?”—that’s a diminished adolescence. It’s harder to do all the other things you are supposed to do as a teen, like have fun and figure out who you are. That stuff is important. Watching students in Ned’s classroom, I felt the enormous amount of privilege being perpetuated there and [thought] this is a rough way to spend your adolescence.

This article appears in print in the 2020 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “How Harvard makes the U.S. less equal.” Order a copy of the issue here or subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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