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"The Inequality Machine" -- Book Review

Goodness gracious: The higher education system in the United States is not broken; we need a new system.

And if you don't think we need a new system, then you should read The Inequality Machine: How Colleges Divide Us by Paul Tough.

Before reading this book, I already knew that our higher education system favored the wealthy and connected. Just watch Operation Varsity Blues to see how the rich have gamed the admissions process. But after reading it, I now realize that these same inequities dominate not just the admissions process but all phases of the college experience: from applying all the way through graduation and beyond.

Tough lays out an irrefutable case in his book that colleges allow the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The hope of achieving upward mobility through a college degree is just a dream that enrollment managers sell to keep their tuition revenue stable.

It's a pretty dark conclusion especially from a personal standpoint as my children will soon enter the college admission process. Yet it is hard to argue with the facts that Tough lays out:

  • Both rich and poor students, who attend the same colleges, achieve similar levels of success. However, rich and poor students are not attending the same colleges: the rich are attending the most elite schools while the poor are not.

  • Many outreach programs to level the playing field have been successful, but on such a small scale that the results are difficult to measure.

  • The College Board has marketed its efforts to make test prep more equitable yet there has been little change in the fact that SAT scores go hand-in-hand with income, education and race of the parents.

  • Even if admitted to elite colleges, lower income students and students of color feel isolated and alone. The culture of many elite colleges fail to support lower income or racially diverse student bodies.

  • As much as colleges profess equity and inclusion, they still need to admit a large proportion of wealthy students in order to make the university solvent.

  • Graduation rates for students of color and low income students pale in comparison to white or wealthy students.

Despite these harsh realities, Tough also presents some optimism. He tells of the 10% Rule that has made the University of Texas system more diverse. He shares a successful intervention program at Georgia State to target potential dropouts. And he shows how colleges can create study groups and community outreach to help lower income students who are unprepared for the rigor of college.

Most importantly, he lays out a case that the United States has historically supported education in ways that could be replicated to decrease inequalities. For example, the GI Bill was a way we got more students into colleges. And the bottom-up initiatives by U.S. citizens from 1910-1940 created a culture around the importance of high school.

Ultimately, Tough calls for a change. He argues that, "If you create an economic system in which achieving financial stability depends on obtaining a product that costs a lot of money, social mobility will inevitably decline.” And since the pandemic of 2020 further exposed the vast inequities in the system, "Change can’t come soon enough."

So if you agree with Tough that "Our collective public education benefits us all," then now is the time for change. Let's look at each step of the college experience--from considering college attendance, to applying, to accepting an offer, to financing the education, to graduating and to entering the work place--and revamp the entire process to make it more open to more students regardless of race, income level or background.

Yes, we have some work to do. But if we truly believe that education is a path towards upward mobility, then now is the time to make sure that path is inviting and welcoming to all.

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