Paul Tough

Writer & Speaker

The Inequality Machine

How did American colleges and universities become a force for social immobility, securing a comfortable future for the children of the wealthy while throwing roadblocks in the way of students from struggling families?

Combining vivid and powerful personal stories with deep, authoritative reporting, Paul Tough reveals where higher education went wrong — and explores the innovative reforms that might set it right.

Originally published as The Years That Matter Most

  • About

Is the American system of colleges and universities designed to protect the privileged and leave everyone else behind? Or can a college education today provide real opportunity to young people seeking to improve their station in life?

The Inequality Machine tells the stories of students trying to find their way, with hope, joy, and frustration, through the application process and into college. Drawing on new research, the book reveals how the landscape of higher education has shifted in recent decades and exposes the hidden truths of how the system works and whom it works for. And it introduces us to the people who really make higher education go: admissions directors trying to balance the class and balance the budget, College Board officials scrambling to defend the SAT in the face of mounting evidence that it favors the wealthy, researchers working to unlock the mysteries of the college-student brain, and educators trying to transform potential dropouts into successful graduates.

With insight, and passion, Paul Tough takes readers on a journey from Ivy League seminar rooms to community college welding shops, from giant public flagship universities to tiny experimental storefront colleges. Whether you are facing your own decision about college or simply care about the American promise of social mobility, The Inequality Machine will change the way you think—not just about higher education, but about the nation itself.

Q&A with Paul Tough

What is The Inequality Machine about?

It’s about higher education and social mobility, and the way those two forces intersect in the United States today. For a long time, that relationship was pretty straightforward: Going to college was the single best way for young Americans to improve their station in life; higher education was the most powerful engine of American social mobility. But there are plenty of signs now that that engine is breaking down. The questions at the heart of the book are: Why doesn’t higher education work the way it used to? What can we do to get that mobility engine up and running again? And what does it feel like to be a young person caught in the middle of that process?

Where did you go to find answers?

I spent six years working on this book, and my reporting took me to twenty-one states. I went all over: to giant flagship state universities and tiny storefront colleges; to 4-H club meetings in rural Louisiana, community-college math classes in Chicago, and philosophy seminars at Princeton. And everywhere I went, I talked to young people. I interviewed more than a hundred students during my travels, including a half dozen whom I followed closely over the course of many years – visiting their homes and their high schools and their colleges, trying to dig deeply into the details of their lives. What I was trying to understand in all those conversations was what it’s like today to be a young American trying to make your way through the process of applying to and attending college – especially if you come from a family without a lot of money.

And what is the experience like for those students?

It’s hard! We have created immense challenges at every stage of the college process for students from working-class and low-income families. They face obstacles in applying to college. They face obstacles in paying for college. If they do make it to highly selective institutions, they often experience an intense culture shock when they arrive on campus and find themselves surrounded by wealth and privilege. But most low-income college students attend community colleges or regional public universities, which in general have much lower success rates and in many cases have been hurt by years of budget cuts.

What about students who come from well-off families? How does the system work for them?

In some ways, the system works great for those students. If you come from money, it’s much easier to gain admission to highly selective colleges. At many Ivy League universities, about three-quarters of the students come from families in the top income quintile – and only 2 or 3 percent come from families in the bottom income quintile. But on a deeper level, I’m not sure the system is serving those affluent students all that well, either. I spent a lot of time reporting with a much-in-demand SAT tutor in Washington, D.C. named Ned Johnson, observing Ned at work and talking to the kids he was tutoring, most of whom came from wealthy homes. A lot of them seemed consumed by anxiety about school and the SAT and their applications and their parents’ expectations. That’s a hard way to spend your adolescence – even if you do make it to a gold-plated college in the end.

Did your reporting give you any insights into the big college admissions scandal of 2019?

Oddly enough, I think it helped me understand the thinking of the super-wealthy parents who were arrested. What they are accused of doing to get their kids into college was certainly wrong, and it was certainly crazy. But the admissions process seems to make every affluent parent a little crazy. I can imagine that crossing the line into illegality, to those parents, just felt like they were trying to get one more advantage for their kids in a system they already knew was tilted in their favor.

What about students who aren’t aiming for those super-elite colleges?

Their situation is even more challenging than that of the super-achievers. Some of the most interesting reporting I did was among students who didn’t particularly like high school and weren’t all that excited about college. But after graduating from high school, many of them quickly discovered that without some kind of post-secondary credential, they were getting stuck in low-paying, insecure jobs with no clear path for advancement. So these students would try to improvise a solution in a higher education system that did not seem designed to help them succeed.

In chapter seven, I profiled three of those students – Orry, who was studying welding in North Carolina; Alicia, who was working in fast food in Texas and taking business classes on the side; and Taslim, who was training to be a corporate I.T. support person in New York City. On a personal level, their individual stories were what drew me in – but their experiences also seemed significant on a broader national level. I talked to labor economists and sociologists and other experts who have done research on post–high school options for students like Orry and Alicia and Taslim, and the overall picture is pretty grim. Those students are well aware that they need credentials beyond a high school degree – but the system does a terrible job helping them understand how to get those credentials and providing a realistic path for them to do so.

What about you? What was your college experience like?

It was pretty choppy, to tell you the truth. When I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, I dropped out of two colleges – first Columbia, and then McGill – and I never went back to complete my B.A. In some ways, reporting this book was the ideal penance for me as a two-time dropout: Almost three decades after deciding I couldn’t stand college, I voluntarily spent six years immersed in campus life. It sometimes felt a little odd, to be re-living the collegiate life I never quite had. But college was definitely a lot more fun and rewarding this time around.

What was the biggest surprise for you in your reporting?

The incredible power of the SAT and the ACT in shaping our post-secondary landscape. Over the last few years the College Board, which oversees the SAT, has put a lot of effort into portraying the SAT as a tool for greater equity in higher education. But what I found in my reporting was more or less the opposite. The students who benefit most from an admissions approach that puts disproportionate weight on SAT and ACT scores tend to be affluent white and Asian students. And that’s precisely the admissions strategy of most American colleges.

Isn’t the SAT a good predictor of how well students will do in college?

Sometimes. When students have both a low SAT score and a low GPA, that’s a clear sign that they’ll probably struggle at an academically demanding college. But many of the low-income students I followed in my reporting had excellent high school GPAs and mediocre SAT scores. When colleges take a chance on admitting those students and then support them through the transition to college, they tend to catch up quickly and excel. But not enough colleges are taking that chance.

What was the most interesting experience you had while you reported this book?

This may be a little hard to believe, but it was the semester I spent in a freshman calculus class. I had heard about this one math professor at the University of Texas, a guy in his early seventies named Uri Treisman. He has spent decades trying to change the way college calculus is taught, and he has figured out a system in which first-generation students and low-income students and students of color – the kind of students who most often fail freshman calculus, according to national statistics – are actually succeeding in big numbers.

I spent the whole semester in Treisman’s calculus course, going to the lectures and discussion sections and office hours, watching him teach and interact with his students. I wound up following one freshman, a young woman named Ivonne who as a child had immigrated with her family from Mexico to San Antonio. She was one of those students I mentioned above, a first-rate student from a big public high school who had great grades but relatively low SAT scores. At most universities, students with Ivonne’s background wouldn’t be encouraged even to take freshman calculus – and if they did take the class, they’d likely
fail. Watching Ivonne and Treisman and his team work together to try to change that equation was a remarkable experience. It taught me a lot about how higher education actually works – and how it might work if we did things differently.

What should we do differently?

Well, I should make clear that this isn’t a policy book – it’s really a book of stories and ideas. But still, my reporting did push me toward some conclusions about what needs to change. At highly selective colleges, the big problems are in the admissions office. Those colleges talk a good game about how hard they work to recruit low-income and first-generation and black and Latino students, but in fact all of those groups are still highly underrepresented at elite universities. The student bodies at those institutions are dominated by wealthy students. That has something to do with the undue weight they put on SAT scores in their approach to admissions, but it also has to do with the favoritism they show to legacy students and to prep- school athletes and to the children of donors. Those institutions can and should do much more to level the playing field.

But those colleges are still just a small sliver of the higher-education landscape. The most urgent need for change is at the other end of the selectivity spectrum – among the institutions that serve students like Orry and Alicia and Taslim. In almost every state, governments have over the last decade cut their budgets for community colleges and public universities, sometimes drastically. This is precisely the moment when we need to be doing the opposite – providing more and better options for the millions of students who need a reliable pathway from high school to a decent middle class life. At other moments of change in American history, we’ve managed to pull together and create and fund education systems that respond to the needs of our young people. This time around, we’re failing. We need to do better – and our history should remind us that we can.

Reviews & Praise

“Indelible and extraordinary, a powerful reckoning with just how far we’ve allowed reality to drift from our ideals.”

—Tara Westover, author of Educated: A MemoirNew York Times Book Review

“I’ve been begging everyone I know to read this book. … It’s an utterly absorbing, utterly enlightening, utterly important book about classism in American higher education and the myth of meritocracy.”

—Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, in “By the Book,” New York Times Book Review

“Paul Tough’s daringbook forces us to unfold the suffering built into the creases of American higher education. It should be necessary reading for every student, professor, administrator, and trustee in this country interested in what radical revision looks like.”

—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir

“A stunning piece of work. It is ostensibly about higher education, about the college experience—and on that level, it’s a completely absorbing narrative with some very surprising, trenchant analysis. But it’s also a lot more than that. It’s a book about class in America. It’s a book about social mobility. And it’s a devastating report card on the American dream. It’s just a very special book.”

—Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind, at WBUR’s CitySpace

“It reveals the heavy price a society pays when it no longer pulls together to give its young people the education they need. An extraordinary, indispensable book.”

—Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“Gorgeously reported. Vividly written. Utterly lucid. Paul Tough jumps skillfully between deeply engaging personal narratives and the bigger truths of higher education. The way he tells the stories of these students, it’s impossible not to care about them and get angry on their behalf.”

—Ira Glass, This American Life

“Can’t recommend this book highly enough. Paul Tough lights a fuse that blows up every piety that American higher education—and indeed, the American upper class—tells itself about elite colleges.”

—Dana Goldstein, New York Times (via Twitter)

“A juicy, often-shocking book that calls out the College Board, the top universities in the country and politicians who have pushed access further out of reach from those who need it the most. Tough, as they say, spills the tea on the whole system.”

—Aisha Sultan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A complex, essential book that asks an urgent question: Is our current higher education system designed to protect the privileged and leave everyone else behind? A fascinating, troubling read.”

The Chicago Tribune

“What’s best about the book, a fruit of all the time Tough spent with his subjects, is that it humanizes the process of higher education. He has fascinating stories about efforts to remediate class disparities in higher education, some of which have succeeded and some of which may have made matters worse.”

—Louis Menand, The New Yorker

“This urgent account combines cogent data and artful storytelling to show how higher education has veered from its meritocratic ideals to exacerbate society’s inequality.”

New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice

“Paul Tough’s important new book on the broken promises of higher education begins with a chapter as suspenseful as the prologue of any serial-killer novel and as heart-rending as the climax of an epic romance. . . . Among his book’s many vital contributions are its portraits of schools and programs that model a better way.”

—Frank Bruni, New York Times

“A revelatory, sometimes explosive book by education writer Paul Tough. … Mixes cutting-edge research with deeply moving personal stories of students from unimaginably disadvantaged backgrounds trying to ‘crack the code’ of getting into college and succeeding once they’re there.”

Howard Gold, MarketWatch

“Does for college admissions what Michael Lewis’s Moneyball did for sabermetrics . . . The bright, hopeful sections are a source of inspiration and joy.”

—Jessica Lahey, Air Mail

“A comprehensive, moving account of the inequalities that block many poor, minority and first-generation students from realizing the benefits of a college education.”

Michael T. Nietzel, Forbes

“Paul Tough is a beautiful reporter and writer and a deeply moral guide to understanding the situation of children in our heartless meritocracy. This book should start a necessary conversation about the high cost of the race to the top.”

—George Packer, author of The Unwinding and Our Man

“I read it through in one sitting. Definitely recommended.”

—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

“A deeply reported and damning portrait of fraying American social mobility . . . a clear-eyed portrait of what a stacked game it really is.”

—Quartz

“A vivid account of the many ways higher education works against social mobility. … [Tough] explores how and why the industry’s high-minded ideals often come crashing down — and what that feels like for young Americans struggling to make their way through.”

Chronicle of Higher Education

“Lifts the veil on some of our most valued beliefs. … He gives the lie to the relationship between college admissions and meritocracy.”

Times Higher Education

“[Tough] illustrates how the promise of higher education as a tool for social mobility is failing. … Anyone who cares about education in the United States should take a good look at the findings here.”

School Library Journal