As Inequities in Higher Ed Grow, So Does the Need To Address Them | Editorial

SLJ editor-in-chief Rebecca Miller sees libraries and librarians as a vital part of the solution for equity, starting in the early years, continuing throughout high school, and into the first-year experience on campus.

There are so many things preying on my mind as I read Paul Tough’s new book, The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us (HMH). He illustrates how the promise of higher education as a tool for social mobility is failing. The system he depicts—fed by testing, college admissions processes, and financial aid models—reinforces economic and social divides rather than closing them. Anyone who cares about education in the United States should take a good look at the findings here.

Altogether, the story is a dark one, ultimately depicting the failure to realize the potential of equitable access to higher education to benefit society as a whole. Instead, Tough finds a system that holds out promise but is stacked against delivering it to all but a privileged few.

The system still favors wealthy students, but even they may not be served all that well. In the admissions process at the most elite levels, these students are caught having to choose between what they might want in a college experience and the most recognized school they can get into, reinforcing the end goal of maximizing one’s earning potential, above all else.

For those who arrive without strong financial resources, community support, or experience, college can be terrifying and seemingly impossible to cope with. (We explored new supports for first-generation students earlier this year.) Some of the most poignant sections of the book share the lives of these students, striving to find their way, build necessary skills, and connect to community.

The students are a positive force here. Tough tracks how they navigate campus, often alone and unsupported. There are some caring adults, who are working to create bridges to help young people build study skills, for instance, or believe in their abilities. Time and again, we see the impact of engaged adults providing guidance or encouragement at the right moment.

Intervention is needed at each step along the path. I see a role for libraries and librarians starting in the early years, when parents begin to build knowledge of how the education system works, and continuing throughout high school and into the first-year experience on campus. As our package on the role of librarians in college readiness in the September issue illustrated, this work is under way. The urgent reality Tough depicts challenges us to consider how to do even more.

Beyond the powerful examples of those individual efforts, there is little that is prescriptive. Tough leaves us with the problem well defined and with no clear road ahead. “The decisions we make about how the system operates—how effectively it functions, who pays for it and how much they pay, how democratic or elitist its selection process is—are really decisions about how our country operates,” he cautions.

We need to step back and reflect on what we want this system to be: Is it for you, me, each of us, to win a zero-sum game, or is it for all of us? Maybe education is about furthering knowledge so that things are better for everybody?

As I grapple with Tough’s findings, the meaning of the subtitle has morphed. “How college makes or breaks us” reads more like a warning now. If we can’t fix what we know is broken, we too will be broken, as a society. It’s up to us, collectively, to fix it.

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Rebecca Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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