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Is college still a good springboard for social mobility?

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 Paul Tough, author of “The Years That Matter Most"
Author Paul Tough joins MPR’s Kerri Miller for a conversation about his new book, “The Years That Matter Most: How college Makes or Breaks Us.”
Courtesy photo | Portrait by Jeff Wilson

Are colleges and universities an effective springboard for social mobility?

That question is at the heart of Paul Tough’s new book “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.” 

The journalist and author spent six years traveling across the country studying colleges and universities, looking at their admissions process, graduation rates and support systems for students. 

He found several factors that make navigating the college system hard for working-class and low income families. 

Tough wrote, “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.” 

After the college admissions scandal that was exposed earlier this year, with a string of wealthy parents facing charges of cheating the system, there has been a lot of focus on selective institutions. 

Tough notes several factors that exacerbate the disparities: high emphasis on SAT scores, legacy admissions, scholarships for prep-school athletes as well as the attention paid to children of donors. 

But he also notes that years of budget cuts at public universities and community colleges have had a direct impact on the success of low-income students. 

He spoke with MPR News host Kerri Miller about his book and ideas for making colleges more equitable.

Use the audio player above to hear their discussion.

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