The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us
Audio Sample

The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us

By:  Paul Tough

Narrated by:  Paul Tough

Also available in:
First published as The Years That Matter Most

From best-selling author Paul Tough, an indelible and explosive book on the glaring injustices of higher education, including unfair admissions tests, entrenched racial barriers, and crushing student debt. Now updated and expanded for the pandemic era.

When higher education works the way it’s supposed to, there is no better tool for social mobility—for lifting young people out of challenging circumstances and into the middle class and beyond. In reality, though, American colleges and universities have become the ultimate tool of social immobility—a system that secures a comfortable future for the children of the wealthy while throwing roadblocks in the way of students from struggling families.

Combining vivid and powerful personal stories with deep, authoritative reporting, Paul Tough explains how we got into this mess and explores the innovative reforms that might get us out. Tough examines the systemic racism that pervades American higher education, shows exactly how the SATs give an unfair advantage to wealthy students, and guides readers from Ivy League seminar rooms to the welding shop at a rural community college. At every stop, he introduces us to young Americans yearning for a better life—and praying that a college education might help them get there.

With a new preface and afterword by the author exposing how the coronavirus pandemic has shaken the higher education system anew.​

Read by the author

Available Resources

  • Format: Audiobook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780358177876

  • ISBN-10: 0358177871

  • Duration: 13 hr 7 min

  • Price: $22.95

  • Publication Date: 09/10/2019

Paul Tough

Paul Tough

PAUL TOUGH is the author of Helping Children Succeed and How Children Succeed, which spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback bestseller lists and was translated into twenty-eight languages. He is also the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to the public radio program This American Life. You can learn more about his work at and follow him on Twitter: @paultough.
Learn More
Paul Tough
Narrated by

Paul Tough

PAUL TOUGH is the author of Helping Children Succeed and How Children Succeed, which spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback bestseller lists and was translated into twenty-eight languages. He is also the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to the public radio program This American Life. You can learn more about his work at and follow him on Twitter: @paultough.
Learn More
  • reviews
    “Indelible and extraordinary, a powerful reckoning with just how far we’ve allowed reality to drift from our ideals.” 

    —Tara Westover, author of Educated: A Memoir, New York Times Book Review 


    “Gorgeously reported. Vividly written. Utterly lucid. Paul Tough jumps skillfully between deeply engaging personal narratives and the bigger truths of higher education. The way he tells the stories of these students, it’s impossible not to care about them and get angry on their behalf.” 

    —Ira Glass, host, This American Life 


    “A stunning piece of work. The Years That Matter Most is ostensibly about higher education, about the college experience—and on that level, it’s a completely absorbing narrative with some very surprising, trenchant analysis. But it’s also a lot more than that. It’s a book about class in America. It’s a book about social mobility. And it’s a devastating report card on the American dream. It’s just a very special book.” 

    —Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind (at WBUR’s CitySpace) 


    “I’ve been begging everyone I know to read this book….It’s an utterly absorbing, utterly enlightening, utterly important book about classism in American higher education and the myth of meritocracy.” —Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, in “By the Book,” New York Times Book Review 


    “[Tough’s] urgent account combines cogent data and artful storytelling to show how higher education has veered from its meritocratic ideals to exacerbate society’s inequality.” 

    New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice 


    “Can’t recommend this book highly enough. Paul Tough lights a fuse that blows up every piety that American higher education—and indeed, the American upper class—tells itself about elite colleges.” 

    —Dana Goldstein, New York Times (via Twitter) 


    “What’s best about the book, a fruit of all the time Tough spent with his subjects, is that it humanizes the process of higher education. He has fascinating stories about efforts to remediate class disparities in higher education, some of which have succeeded and some of which may have made matters worse.” 

    —Louis Menand, The New Yorker 


    “A complex, essential book that asks an urgent question: Is our current higher education system designed to protect the privileged and leave everyone else behind? A fascinating, troubling read.” 

    —Heidi Stevens, The Chicago Tribune 


    “Paul Tough’s important new book on the broken promises of higher education begins with a chapter that he succeeds in making as suspenseful as the prologue of any serial-killer novel and as heart-rending as the climax of an epic romance . . . Among his book’s many vital contributions are its portraits of schools and programs that model a better way.” 

    —Frank Bruni, New York Times 


    “A comprehensive, moving account of the inequalities that block many poor, minority and first-generation students from realizing the benefits of a college education.” 

    —Michael T. Nietzel, Forbes 


    “Paul Tough’s daring The Years That Matter Most forces us to unfold the suffering built into the creases of American higher education. It refuses to let us forget about the bodies and lives of real students. It should be necessary reading for every student, professor, administrator, and trustee in this country interested in what radical revision looks like.” 

    —Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir 


    “Paul Tough is a thinker to cherish: formidably clear-eyed, incandescently learned, and unshakably hopeful. Diving deep into the rewards, challenges, and perils of the American university system, The Years That Matter Most reveals the heavy price a society pays when it no longer pulls together to give its young people the education they need. An extraordinary, indispensable book.” 

    —Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 


    “Paul Tough is a beautiful reporter and writer and a deeply moral guide to understanding the situation of children in our heartless meritocracy. The Years That Matter Most is a great book that should start a necessary conversation about the high cost of the race to the top.” 

    —George Packer, author of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America and Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century 


    “All of the books by best-selling author Paul Tough have been meaningful . . . [The Years that Matters Most] arrives at the very moment when energized voters are pressing presidential hopefuls on how they would help all young people reach a middle-class life.” 

    —Esther Cepeda, syndicated columnist 


    “Does for college admissions what Michael Lewis’s Moneyball did for sabermetrics . . . The bright, hopeful sections are a source of inspiration and joy.” 

    —Jessica Lahey, Air Mail 


    “[Tough] writes movingly about students who are trying to navigate the confounding, expensive, and intimidating process of getting into and staying in college.” 



    “Paul Tough’s new book makes the powerful case that the system just isn’t as fair as it should be.” 

    —Katie Couric, Wake-Up Call 


    “A deeply reported and damning portrait of fraying American social mobility . . . a clear-eyed portrait of what a stacked game it really is.” 



    “Drawing on broad reading and visits to campuses across the country, Tough’s work offers an indictment of American society and political structures and persuasively argues that universities must fulfill the American commitment to equality of opportunity.” 

    Library Journal, starred review 


    “Tough clearly shows that college placement remains mostly about wealth at the expense of a collective educational environment. A good choice for aspiring college students and their parents.” 

    —Kirkus Reviews  


    “In this fascinating study, education journalist Tough (How Children Succeed) argues persuasively that access to an elite college education, which in the U.S. is popularly believed to be a meritocratically distributed social equalizer, is in fact distributed in ways that reinforce existing economic divisions... His analyses of data are sound, his portraits of students and teachers sympathetic, his argument neatly structured, and his topic one with wide appeal. This well-written and persuasive book is likely to make a splash.” 

    —Publishers Weekly  


    “Tough’s book explores the real and terrifying idea that what you do (or don’t do) between the ages of 18 and 22—or even 16 to 25—profoundly shapes the course of your life . . . moving and memora...

  • excerpts
    1. Decision Day 


    When I walked up out of the subway on that cold spring afternoon, Shannen Torres was nowhere to be seen. We had arranged to meet at 4:15 p.m. in St. Nicholas Park in West Harlem, just down the hill from A. Philip Randolph Campus High School, where she was a senior, a few months away from graduation. But when I got to the park, I couldn’t see her anywhere. 


    My phone buzzed. It was a text from Shannen: “I’m to your left.” 


    I looked up the path and spotted her, sitting huddled over her phone on a bench about fifty yards away. She was dressed in layers against the chill, a beige barn jacket over two dark hoodies. Everything else she wore was black: black sweatpants, big black high-top sneakers, black chunky glasses, and a black backward Nike baseball cap, into which she’d stuffed her long, thick dark hair. I walked over and sat down next to her. 


    “Hi,” she said. “I’m hiding here because I don’t want anyone to see me.” 


    I had met Shannen only a couple of times before, so it was hard for me to say for sure if this constituted strange behavior for her. But it definitely seemed a little odd. 


    Then she explained the situation. It was March 30. At exactly 5:00 p.m. that afternoon, every college in the Ivy League would simultaneously release their acceptance and rejection letters for next year’s freshman class. I had dimly understood that the decisions were going out at some point that week, but I hadn’t realized they would be arriving at the very moment Shannen and I had planned to meet. 


    Shannen had applied to two Ivy League colleges: Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. She wanted to get into Princeton, but she really, really wanted to get into the University of Pennsylvania. It had been her “dream school,” she told me, since seventh grade. And in less than an hour, either her dream would come true, or it wouldn’t. 


    That fact was overwhelming her. When I’d interviewed her before, she had always seemed pretty cool—a Bronx girl, a streetwise Dominicana—but here on this bench in St. Nicholas Park, she was coming undone right before my eyes. “I’m the nervousest I’ve ever been,” she said. Her hands were trembling. She looked like she was about to cry. 


    “I think it’s just, like, I’ve been working my entire life for this one thing,” she explained. “It feels like everything is depending on this. Which sounds dramatic, I know. But it’s true.” 


    Shannen was born in New York City in 1999 to parents who had emigrated from the Dominican Republic. When she was two, with her parents’ relationship crumbling, her mother took her and her older brother to New Bedford, Massachusetts. They stayed with some relatives at first, but that arrangement soon crumbled, too, and they moved next into a shelter run by Catholic nuns, and then, after a few months, into an apartment of their own in the projects. 


    Shannen started elementary school in Massachusetts, and she was a good student from the beginning. School wasn’t stressful in those early years, but once her mother moved the family back to New York, to the Bronx, the pressure started to build. In sixth grade Shannen entered Junior High School 22, a struggling school in a hulking building on 167th Street. There were fights in the hallway every day, and she was bullied by new arrivals from the Dominican Republic who made fun of her for not being Dominican enough. Shannen was proud of her roots and her race, but there were elements of other cultures she was coming to appreciate as well: Coldplay, pasta, Harry Potter novels. She retreated into her schoolwork, studying harder, doing more. And when she got to high school, she worked harder still. 


    In the entrance hall of Randolph High, on a bright yellow bulletin board on the wall, the administration posts, each semester, the honor roll for each grade, all the top scholars from a school of almost fifteen hundred students, listed in order of their grade point average. In the first semester of her freshman year, Shannen’s name appeared at the very top of the list, and her name had stayed at the top ever since. Now, as graduation approached, her academic average was 97.7 percent, which would almost certainly make her valedictorian. In three and a half years, she had not missed a single day of high school. 


    But remaining number one took an enormous effort. Each night, Shannen stayed up until her homework was done perfectly, sometimes till four or five in the morning, ignoring her mother’s admonitions to close the books and go to bed. The previous year, her junior year, was the most grueling.

Available Resources

  • Format: Audiobook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780358177876

  • ISBN-10: 0358177871

  • Duration: 13 hr 7 min

  • Price: $22.95

  • Publication Date: 09/10/2019