When I heard that New York Times journalist and best-selling author Paul Tough had written a book examining the role of American higher education in advancing social mobility, I put it on my personal to-read list. And just 19 pages into The Years That Matter Most, I knew I had to talk to my SCORE colleagues about what I was reading.
The book is a page-turning narrative that balances individual stories of postsecondary students and educators with extensive data-based research on a topic near and dear to my heart — college access and success. But a pivotal passage early in the book stopped me in my tracks:
“The American system of higher education has the potential to be a powerful engine of mobility, able to reliably lift young people from poverty to the middle class, and from the middle class to affluence. But, in reality, for many young Americans, it functions as something closer to the opposite: an obstacle to mobility, an instrument that reinforces a rigid social hierarchy and prevents them from moving beyond the circumstances of their birth.”
And with that, SCORE’s virtual book club was born. Over a period of two months, members of the SCORE team met three times over Zoom for discussions centered around this text. Those talks ranged from fun poll questions designed to make participants laugh and generate discussion to more personal discussions where we got to know our team members a bit better by learning what elements of the narrative resonated with them and why.
The shared text was an opportunity for us to come together and learn about student-centered innovations that are happening around the country and to inspire what we know to be possible in our work. It also allowed us to feel more connected to our organizational core values and team members at a time when we cannot be together in person. Additionally, the discussions in response to this book provided the space for us to step back and do some critical thinking and learning about higher education to better inform our organizational advocacy efforts.
Like Paul Tough, we at SCORE understand that a postsecondary degree is increasingly necessary to thrive in a changing economy. Our goal is that every student in Tennessee completes a postsecondary degree or credential. While Tennessee has led the way in increasing access to postsecondary through tuition-free college programs like Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect, equity gaps in degree completion by race and socio-economic status show that our postsecondary system was not built to serve all students well.
SCORE’s 2021 State of Education report puts forth a number of policy recommendations intended to close equity gaps in higher education so that we have a postsecondary system that serves students equitably. We know that we must drive interventions that improve postsecondary persistence and completion in local communities; invest in supports that help students transition seamlessly into postsecondary; and adopt K-12 and policies and practices that create a smoother path to college completion.
When Paul Tough writes the follow-up to The Years That Matter Most in a few years’ time, the story of how Tennesseans banded together to provide equitable, high-quality opportunities for college and career success should be the first story he highlights on the national stage. Let’s commit to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to experience the transformative power of a high-quality postsecondary education. Let’s make sure that Tennessee’s narrative of success is the opening chapter of that book.
Kate Watts recently served as postsecondary engagement manager at SCORE.