Michele Siqueiros on “The Years That Matter Most”

August 5, 2020
reposted from the Campaign for Free College Tuition blog

In 2019, when the college admissions scandal, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, came to light, like most Americans I was sick to my stomach. Abuse of privilege, wealth and power is not new. My anger wasn’t just directed at the families and the campus leaders that were engaged in the scandal, it was fueled by a frustration at how the least privileged, wealthy and famous among us, have to overcome a million hurdles in order to get to college, and when we do, we are made to feel as if we don’t belong. In response to that anger, I wrote this earlier post as a tribute to first generation students, me included.

Reading Paul Tough’s The Years That Matter Most reignited some of that same anger and frustration.

For me, college definitely mattered. As a first-generation college graduate, the daughter of an immigrant who only had 6th grade education, earning a BA and MA was my path out of poverty, and just as importantly, my opportunity into a career I love. College mattered so much, that for the past 16 years as the President of the Campaign for College Opportunity, I have fought to expand college access, protect financial aid, and champion the types of reforms that can improve outcomes and close racial/ethnic equity gaps in our community colleges and universities.

My mother worked as a seamstress earning just above minimum wage. She never had health benefits, or paid time off, or any kind of job security. We lived paycheck to paycheck, in a small one-bedroom apartment, where my bed was a pull-out mattress that came out every night and was put away in the morning. We had no safety net to catch us if we fell. I knew I wanted and needed more security than that. I was poor, but I grew up with everything I needed, food on the table, a roof overhead, and a strong powerful role model who loved me and nurtured my love for learning and devouring every book the public library allowed me to check out. Because of my experience I am guilty of embracing the idea that college is an effective panacea for a lot of our social ills and for the kind of social mobility that took me out of that one bedroom apartment and finds me today with a home and a mortgage I can easily afford. The research confirms the benefits of a college education, especially for low-income students.

But Tough’s book also finds that the following truths about college are also playing out in America and they are tougher to bear:

  • College perpetuates the existing inequality in our society by disproportionately serving the most well off;
  • Talented and brilliant low-income students are much less likely to enroll in college or graduate from college compared to mediocre low-performing high-income students;
  • Few low-income students are served by the wealthiest and selective colleges across America; In fact, more than two-thirds of undergraduates at Ivy League and other highly selective colleges are very rich, and fewer than 4 percent of students are poor;
  • The multi-billion dollar test prep industry (SAT/ACT in particular) help rig the system even further in favor of the rich; In Trough’s words, “certifying privilege rather than merit” and providing false signals for who is truly able to succeed or not;
  • Talented first generation and low-income high performing students struggle in college environments that are not welcoming;
  • Black students remain ridiculously underrepresented in higher education, especially Black students who are NOT wealthy, biracial or immigrants; And there appears to be a cap on just how many Black students are accepted into Ivy League colleges (8%);
  • Low-income students who do make it into the Ivy League, mostly come from high performing boarding or private schools; In other words, the Ivy League is hardly taking a chance on students attending regular public schools in America.
  • The business of running colleges makes wealthy tuition paying students a big draw for admissions offices; Imagine the perverse incentives of opening campuses during a global health pandemic. And the flawed U.S. News and World Report’s famous college rankings values the least important things about a college and creates perverse incentives for campuses who want to improve their ranking;

If that list is not depressing enough, recently Americans have been engaging in a discussion around the value of college that has grown more political and polarizing. Tough aptly points out how these discussions serve as a political distraction from better funding higher education, financial aid, and dealing with student debt and that those who attack the value of college the loudest, ironically all have a college degree.

Reading this book could leave you feeling pretty down, especially if like me you are busy championing college opportunity and the social mobility we know can come with it. But I found it as a clarion call to the urgent work that we must continue to fight for: Affirming our efforts to ensure colleges and universities drop the SAT/ACT from college admissions. Affirming our work to ensure more inclusive and diverse faculty, college leadership and academic senate bodies that make critical decisions on admissions, curriculum and create a sense of belonging on our campuses. And reaffirming in our successes to ensure a stronger focus on student centered pathways in and through college that eliminate problematic placement tests, ineffective remedial courses and instead recognize the talent and assets brought to campus by diverse students, and the necessary supports that must be prioritized to ensure they can succeed.

Tough ends the book reflecting on the GI Bill – the first big American investment in college and social mobility post World War II. It is exactly the kind of investment we need today. He reminds us that what we value is at the core of how we support (or do not) higher education, how much we force students to pay and how much debt we tolerate them to absorb. Through higher education we can proclaim that every talented American truly can live the American dream and go to college and exercise their full potential. Or we can continue to exacerbate inequality and leave millions of talented Americans behind simply because they are not White or too poor – and that is the continued Varsity Blues scandal in America.

Michele Siqueiros
Michele Siqueiros, President


Read more blog posts