Paying the Price: family matters, academic success, and financial aid

Let’s continue with our reading of Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price.  It’s a powerful, meticulously researched, and vital book for anyone interested in American education.  (Click here to find all posts and discussion on the reading so far)

Paying the Price, resting on my laptopsIn this post I’ll discuss the next two chapters, 6 and 7, “Family Matters” and “Making the Grade.”  I’ll outline their contents, then  ask some discussion questions.

To participate, you can leave thoughts and your own questions as comments below.  You can also write in our reading’s Google Doc.  And if that’s not enough, you can also join the Twitter conversation by using the hashtag #payingtheprice.

For more information about this reading, check the posts about the book so far under this tag.  We’re about halfway in as of this week.

6: Family Matters

Before we proceed, I wanted to offer a quick observation.  Paying the Price focuses on students we normally don’t discuss in higher education.  She’s not dwelling on learners from professional families who head off to distant and elite colleges, where they find themselves in an atmosphere of detached contemplation.  That’s the world of William Deresiewicz or Julie Lythcott-Haims, of Yale and Stanford.  Paying the Price is about the rest of us.  The majority of learners, the bulk of America’s higher ed experience.

Back to chapter 6.  Here Goldrick-Rab dives more deeply into connections between students, their families, and financial aid.  She leads off with a big claim, one that educators aren’t really taking seriously, I think: “the increasing costs of higher education are creating changes in family life.” (Kindle location 2835)  That is, women are having fewer children, and those later in life, in part due to their higher education experience.  And, obviously, the escalating cost of higher ed, born by a growing proportion of the population, has large effects on family finances.

Goldrick-Rab really focuses on the reverse, how changing family situations alter the higher education experience.  She returns to her earlier theme about flat or declining wages for all but the wealthiest, pointing out increasing financialization (mortgages, car notes, credit cards, student loans) as playing a major role in how families survive and strategize (a theme I’ve been harping on for a decade).  She also reminds us of how parenting has changed, with growing numbers of children growing up in single-family households – a topic familiar to those of us who read Robert Putnam’s Our Kids – and how class drives the number of parents (the wealthier the family, the more likely there are two parents; also the reverse).

How do the poorest students far, then, given the economic straits and often challenged families?  These learners devote significant time and money to supporting their families.  They care for ailing parents, mind younger siblings, and ship their financial aid back home.

For Ian’s family, sharing resources was a matter of survival.  When he became a college student, the practice continued.  Ian shared the limited funds he had – obtained from grants, loans, and work – with his mother and brothers. (3042)

Rarely do discussions about the challenges facing college students recognize the possibility that money might need to flow from the student to the parent or to other relatives… (3111)

These parents sometimes resist helping their children pay for college, or even help them through the process (3276).  Those families are the opposite of helicopter parents (2974).  Goldrick-Rab is at times scathing on this point:

Ian Williams, for example, learned how to share with his brothers and sisters in a way many of his college professors and administrators likely did not.  He shared his food. (3029)

This sharing draws on family and cultural traditions, as the chapter explains.  But it can also backfire academically, as at least one study found such students likelier to work more hours and less likely to complete their studies. (3165)  It can also cause problems for campus administrators, who find spending money on “noneducational expenses” to be “misuse, even fraud”. (3243)  And yet families view their poor students who work hard at school as successful – and therefore expected to support their family members. (3282)

7: Making the Grade

This chapter explores how the poorest students succeed academically, or don’t, in terms of their financial situations.  It starts by considering Academically Adrift, and the idea that “students drift… aimlessly through higher education”, then turns it against the experience of poor students.  Once again Goldrick-Rab finds a gulf between the usual discussions of academic experience and the reality of non-wealthy students. (3308)

Goldrick-Rab hammers home the point that poor students work hard in classes, dubbing them “The Most Serious Students on Campus.”

We found that academics were a central focus of students’ time in college.  They cared a great deal about learning the material needed to earn degrees and win jobs that would improve their economic standing and those of their families. (3322)

[Results of her team’s research] suggest that Pell recipients may be more focused on their academics and spend more time on educational activities than the average undergraduate portrayed in these other studies. (3381)

And yet the structure of financial aid fights against this will to succeed, as grade point requirements combined with economic stress tend to slow students’ progress through a degree (3437ff).

The second half of this chapter returns to stories about the students we met earlier.  Several do very well in school, largely because of generous financial aid and, in one case, a good high school-college bridge program (3470).  Others fail, crushed by the combination of overwork, financial stress, family demands, and academic pressure.   These stories are grim and frustrating.

[student] Mai offered the following analogy: “Every time I look up, there’s like a knife just dangling [above me], and, if I do something wrong, I could totally destroy everything I have going for me.”  To Mai, these “knives” were grades and financial problems… (3635)

Around that time [several years through an undergrad degree], Tyler stopped talking about business administration and a possible future in graduate school and started to consider enrolling in the army. (3710)

One even finds her life improving once her academic dreams fall apart and she leaves college (3610).

Discussion questions

  1. How significant an improvement in these students’ lives would work-study reform make?
  2. Would a guaranteed minimum income make a difference to these students and their families?
  3. Would these students have been better served by working several years before going to college?

For next Monday, February 20th, we’ll move on to the next two chapters, 8: City of Broken Dreams and 9: Getting to Graduation.

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