The Years that Matter Most by Paul Tough

“Choose the most selective that will admit you.”

According to higher education critics, here are only four colleges available to you:

Ivy Elite University: This is the stuffy, centuries-old campus that produces the future leaders of government and business. The school’s endowment is larger than the GDP of a small country. The students lack diversity in almost every category except for a few token examples. They are the sons and daughters of the current leaders of government and business. Despite all of this, every student – and I mean every student - wants to go here.

Big Party University: Ok, so you were not the brightest bulb in high school, but you were not the dullest knife either. You learned not to mix your metaphors but you also knew how to have fun. College is the next, natural step.

Community College: This is the fallback plan. School maybe isn’t your thing and despite studying hard, you never achieved great grades. Fortunately, there is a college in town that can jumpstart you in the right direction. You will feel discouraged and perhaps shame, but don’t worry, society doesn’t expect much from you. It doesn’t even expect you to finish your associate’s degree.

For Profit University: Congratulations, you have been scammed. If you are lucky, you have received a worthless degree and a lot of debt. Good luck.

These four colleges do not accurately define American higher education. It’s easy to generalize and oversimplify. It’s easy to find errors and bemoan the whole system. Higher education is very complex. Education, as a whole, is extremely complicated. I have not found a system of higher education, in any country, that is perfect or categorically better. A system to educate a whole society is relatively new. As the author mentions in this book, at the start of the 20th century, most adults did not have a high school education. In just one short century, education has revolutionized and by the time the 21st century is over, it will be completely transformed again.

So here’s my take…

Ivy Elite University has its place. I think we overvalue degrees from specific schools. I don’t think a Harvard degree should be considered better than a degree from a public university, but I can’t control that. Brand names are extremely powerful. Why does a leather purse from one store cost thousands of dollars but only a few bucks at another?

Big Party University: Look, any school can be a party school. Almost every college in America that serves traditional undergraduate students will have parties. Some students go to these schools, get an education and never attend one party. You are not legally bound to party.

Community College: The stigma around community colleges is frustrating. Community colleges are great resources and I wish they had more resources. A million-dollar donation to a community college would serve thousands of students, a million-dollar donation to an Ivy Elite University would serve half a student, maybe.

For Profit University: Um, I don’t have anything here. I am not a fan of for profit schools.

I had a great college experience. The college I attended does not fit neatly into the aforementioned categories. Most colleges don’t fit these categories. College made me a better person. I am a proud of my degrees.

I thought this book was decent. The author is definitely critical of the system but rightly so. There is a lot of information about inequity in the system from misguided standardized tests and the lack of support for first-generation students. However, when I finished this book, I did not feel enlightened. I didn’t find anything new.

I felt like the book had a lot of filler; lots of biographical information on his subjects and descriptions of the rooms he is sitting in.

I don’t think I would recommend this to anyone who knew a lot about higher education already.