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The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us

4.42  ·  Rating details ·  1,418 ratings  ·  237 reviews
“Indelible and extraordinary.”—Tara Westover, author of Educated: A Memoir, New York Times Book Review
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

The best-selling author of How Children Succeed returns with a powerful, mind-changing inquiry into higher education in the United States

Does college still work? Is the system designed just to protect the privileged and leave
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published September 10th 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Oct 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
First up, this isn’t a guide on how to get into college. Nor is it reassurance that it doesn’t matter which college you get into. Instead, it’s an examination of the college playing field, and not only will you better understand just how tilted it is but also how, even when where attempts are made to make it more level, the inequalities can persist. At the same time, Tough highlights signals of hope and bright spots where dedicated people are invested in helping more students succeed in and bene ...more
Sleepless Dreamer
Sep 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
There were about two weeks where I seriously considered studying in the United States. However, after filling up one page of the nightmare that is the Common App, I asked myself if I would actually go study at any American college if I got accepted. I realized that my answer was, "mm, probably not, I just wanna know if I can get in". That's not a good enough reason and so I stopped. Reading this made me realize how incredibly happy I am with my decision. 

The Years That Matter Most: How College M
Oct 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
In The Years That Matter Most, Paul Tough asks whether Americans should go to university.

Does meritorious social mobility exist in America or has it been corrupted by inherited wealth? Under the old social mobility model, which still gets props, Americans who outworked others reached the top and consequently deserved their fabulous wealth and lofty status. The postwar generations blazed a new myth of meritorious prosperity: in the university, the diligent, intelligent, and credentialed would ris
Sep 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Paul Tough’s new book is an addition to the literature of how the elite college applications process in the US, while always tied to replicating status and class, has recently grown even more so to the point where it is grossly unfair to most potential applicants, who lack the family resources, educational histories, and contacts to successfully apply to top college and to benefit and prosper at those colleges if they manage to secure admission. The application process writ large is shown as an ...more
Sep 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Of all the college and meritocracy books, this is the best and the most interesting. Tough cuts through the data and the hype and offers a timely analysis of inequality and meritocracy as it relates to the college admissions process. In sum, it is not really a meritocracy. The SAT correlates with family income. Elite colleges take mostly rich kids. And it actually does matter which college you go to. He also debunks the dumb trope about how people should skip college to become welders making $10 ...more
Jan 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I'm not exactly sure where to start with this book. I suppose the best thing I can say about it is this: in ten years when I look back on the second stage of my career, I imagine I will look back at this book as the light that illuminated my path. In other words, I found Tough's book to be moving, profound, and inspiring. I felt a rollercoaster of emotions while reading this: anger, sadness and elation resulting in literal tears, a burning desire to create change crushed ten pages later by disil ...more
Steve Peifer
Oct 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I have worked in this field for 20 years and not only does Tough get it, he sees far beyond most of us who can’t see beyond our trenches. He is a evocative writer who will make you desperately care about where a girl from the Bronx gets into college. He does an overview of educational policy that has led us to this perilous place that made so many things clear that weren’t before I read this book.

A mark of a great book is knowing the right people to talk to. By highlighting the work of Angel and
Feb 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: education
College is supposed to be the path to social mobility in the United States, but that doesn't seem to be true any more. There are exceptions, but on average rich students go to elite schools and stay rich, middle class students go to non-elite schools and stay middle class, and poor students don't go to college or drop out with debt. Tough asks why this is happening, looking at everything from standardized testing and test prep to lack of funding to college rankings that reward enrolling rich stu ...more
Carolyn Kost
Oct 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: education
This book is really more a collection of essays, some more effective than others. It would have benefited from a closer editing of the anecdotes and straw man arguments. Tough's previous work, How Children Succeed was enjoyable, though I recall it as being similarly Gladwellian in its fallacious reasoning and lack of logic.

I'm delighted Tough discussed the bottom line with university enrollment management (published in the NYT in 9/19), mentioned Tressie McMillan Cottom's book, Lower Ed (about
Haley Hope Gillilan
Sep 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, arcs
absolutely outstanding. breaks down some important information about our higher education system and features some truly incredible anecdotes. I teared up towards the end. My higher ed friends MUST read this book, especially because a lot of it is taking a look our class- many of the interviewees in this book were in college from 2013-2017. It is relevant information for those of us taking on various roles in higher education.
Jan 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Highly highly recommend to those starting to doubt the benevolence of the almighty universities, as tools of social mobility and symbols of meritocracy. Truly opened my eyes and gave me the language to describe why college board is bad for students and how we should be demanding our colleges and universities and government to do better for its students and for the future of our people.
Feb 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wow. This was moving and thought-provoking and so well written. I teared up more than once as I heard about some of the first generation or lower income students who succeeded when supported by caring professors. (Three cheers for University of Texas). I highly recommend the audio read by Tough himself.
Sep 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Saw this book on Bill Gates' list of books he was interested in reading. I have one son in college, another in his senior year of high school, and a freshman in high school. As a college senior many years ago, I worked in the admissions office of my college, and thought I had a pretty good idea of how the admissions process worked.

Not only do I have a better understanding of the mechanics of college admissions, I have a much greater appreciation for the inequity inherent in higher education. We
Nov 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
It is hard to summarize how much I admire this book. It has the sickest burns of the College Board and a quote from David Coleman that has now enraged me for weeks, the writing is superb and uses detail in just the right ways so I really felt like I got to know people, and I CRIED ACTUAL TEARS when a student passed her calc exam and her very amazing and dedicated professor called her on the phone to congratulate her. I'm not sure what the book is like if you don't work in higher ed or know much ...more
Oct 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a great read. Albeit I am already interested in the price and importance of college, I found the data concerning Ivy League vs state schools, ACT/SAT test prep, first generation and minority student achievement, and admissions procedures utterly fascinating. There is so much to think and talk about that I’d consider this nonfiction book a perfect book club read. The admissions strategy alone makes this one of my favorites of the year.
Jan 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Really interesting, well-written book about inequality and how our educational institutions perpetuate it, along with some ways that people are succeeding in making things better. Many engaging stories about students, faculty and other educators. Highly recommend (even if you don't have a kid heading to college soon!). ...more
May 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
I thought because I was in education, I understood it. I did not. I love the student stories in this book. I love how Mr. Tough writes these interactions. He does so in a way that the reader feels like she is sitting in on the interviews, too. I understand so many more things about teaching now, about my students, about my own college experiences, about the PURPOSE of a college education. This book is perfect for those who have a college degree and those who don’t. Both groups of people will tak ...more
Marjorie Ingall
Feb 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: grownups
The best non-fiction book I've read in a long time. A must-read, and not only for privileged parents going through the admissions process (but especially for privileged parents going through the admissions process). This is for everyone who cares about fairness and access and structural inequities and who enjoys hating the living shit out of the College Board which is evil and you should TOTALLY hate the living shit out of the College Board.

It is also a really good read. Not too dense with stat
Feb 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
i highly recommend this to anyone interested in societal systems and influence, and especially anyone that advocates for education. this is not a book about how to get into university, but the most well-researched analysis of the american dream i've ever read - which is to say, very very interesting! ...more
Kate Penner
Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A really galvanizing, well written work on the landscape of higher ed and its inaccessibility for millions of Americans.
It’s a particularly great survey work if you are interested in a brief history and the current state of college access, public higher ed, the student loan crisis, STEM persistence, issues with the AP curriculum and higher education as a stepping stone to social mobility. The case studies and personal narratives make this book sing!
I normally don’t write reviews, so this is ju
Arash Narchi
Oct 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019, education, college
It's really easy to answer the question of the value of college from a single lens today, whether you are directly using your education or not, the kind of profession you are in, the environment around you and your culture.

What Paul Tough did here that I found very interesting was looking at college from all the different angles and views. From the college admissions process, to standardized tests, to the rich who apply to college, the poor and the data on studies in between (including some coo
Nov 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A powerful argument for changing not only how students get into college and who goes to college but also what happens once they are there. With the demise of small regional liberal arts colleges, do the elites like Princeton and Dartmouth and others have a public purpose that they're just not undertaking? ...more
Dec 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
A great report on the state of higher education. As someone who works in higher ed, as an advisor and who has worked in admissions, this book is spot on. I found it insightful, well-researched and well-written. A must for those who work in higher ed, for those who are looking to send their kids to college and anyone who has wondered was has happened in that world in the last 20 years.
Katie Bruell
Sep 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was a fascinating, infuriating, and heartening read. We need to change the way we are currently doing college, starting with those stupid US News rankings and moving on to finding a way to fund it for everyone who wants and needs it.
Oct 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Absolutely brilliant. Loved the writing and undoubtedly chuckled at some sassy tones in the dissemination of the research done into higher education.

Need to do another skim through to outline my favorite quotes since I read a library copy.
This book is highly depressing; I hope that it leads to some deep changes in higher education because the system we have now is a mess. In the meantime I will hope to forget as much as I can before my children are applying. But I loved the individual stories he tells here.
Jenni Buchanan
A tough look at the inequality that exists in our current college admitting system.
Krista O'Connell
Nov 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The best book I have ever read about higher education, social mobility, and equity. Should be required reading for anyone interested in any of these topics.
Sierra Elmore
Excellent, timely book with standout reporting and insights. As a college student, this got to me.
Adnan Alaa
Dec 15, 2019 rated it liked it
This is a very personal review. I strongly related to many of the stories and the facts presented in this book because I have gone through or witnessed the same happening for people close to me. This book starts by telling the story of a girl who dreams of getting admitted to an Ivy league university yet gets rejected. For me, this is a book about failed dreams. These dreams you spend most of your time before sleeping picturing them turning into a reality. Slowly, adding a detail into the scene ...more
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Paul Tough is the author, most recently, of The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us. His three previous books include How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which was translated into 27 languages and spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback best-seller lists. Paul is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazi ...more

Articles featuring this book

Across the U.S., many high-school seniors are entering the nail-biting period of waiting for college admissions decisions. While the die has been...
31 likes · 7 comments
“You’re on your own. You figure out how to get the skills you’re going to need.” 1 likes
“they favor students from the Privileged Poor over the Doubly Disadvantaged as a way to “hedge their bets on diversity.” 1 likes
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