Author Paul Tough will be in Portland on Friday to talk about his new book about college, ‘The Years That Matter Most.” Photo by Jeff Wilson

Timing is everything, and Paul Tough could not have picked a better time to write a book about the broken-down conditions of American colleges and what can be done to fix them.

“The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us” came out last week, just as actress Felicity Huffman was trying to persuade a federal judge in the college-admissions scandal that she should not spend time in jail for paying thousands of dollars to alter her daughter’s SAT scores. The case has heightened the perception that wealth and privilege have more to do with getting into an elite school than good grades. Tough’s book shines an even brighter light on the issue of fairness among the haves and the have-nots by presenting mounds of evidence and anecdotes that suggest that’s exactly what’s happening, leaving America in an educational crisis. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, Tough – who lives in Austin, Texas, and will be in Portland this week – spent six years researching and writing the book.

“The Years That Matter Most” is about the intersection of higher education and social mobility in American life. In the not-too-distant past, the relationship between those themes was obvious and straightforward. Higher education was the engine of social mobility. “It still works for individual young people, but more broadly the engine has broken down,” Tough said in a phone interview. “For so many young people now, higher education is obstacle to progress.”

Tough’s previous book, “How Children Succeed,” was an international best-seller and earned him a place on the list of cultural influencers. The new book should keep him there, said his longtime friend, Portland writer Sara Corbett. She will interview Tough at 7 p.m. Friday at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine.

The event is a collaboration among The Telling Room, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, USM and Portland Public Schools. Corbett is co-founder of The Telling Room, which works with young people to build writing skills and confidence. Corbett and Tough became friends when both worked as contributing writers at the New York Times Magazine. Corbett edited Tough’s first draft of the new book and guided him through the revision process.

She believes “The Years That Matter Most” will reshape how we view the impact and role of college in American culture. “It’s truly the kind of book that people are going to want to chatter endlessly about, a journalistic deep dive on what role college plays in the lives of young people – its impact on economic mobility, the intricacies of the college-admissions process, and the obstacles faced by first-generation college students and students of color. It’s riveting reading,” she wrote in an email. “It’s definitely going to make a big splash.”

“The Years that Matter Most” by Paul Tough. Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin

Among the conclusions of “The Years That Matter Most”:

The country’s most selective colleges and universities are admitting more wealthy students and fewer poor and working-class students, even as they attempt to create an image that the opposite is true;

The battle for tuition money among colleges is so fierce that colleges enroll students they do not want;

Poor students who are admitted to elite schools are overwhelmed and beaten down by the inequality of wealth on campus;

College was once a symbol of hope and promise and a path to a better life with more economic opportunity and security. Today, young people make their decisions about college motivated less by hope and more by fear, he writes. Instead of being a path to a better life, college is increasingly seen as “an insurance policy against moving down,” he contends.

Tough is traveling the country to talk about his research, and hopes the book inspires conversations like the one he will have with Corbett on Friday. He’s quick to note that his book is not a policy book. It’s a book of stories and ideas, he said.

He blames admissions officers at selective colleges for continuing to put “undue weight” on SAT scores that favor wealthy students and for favoring legacy students, and he also blames state governments and legislators for cutting educational spending at a time when more students need more help.


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