Paying the Price: readers get creative, City of Broken Dreams, and Getting to Graduation

Our reading of Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price continues, as we reach some of the last chapters. 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 laptops

News items have cropped up which support the book’s findings.  For example, NPR recently reported on rising homelessness and hunger among college students (thanks to Kyle Johnson for the pointer).  At Inside Higher Ed Matt Reed reminds us to pay more attention to community colleges, and commends Goldrick-Rab for doing just that.

At the same time, other readers have been sharing their thoughts. Robin DeRosa tweeted her reading, and neatly Storified the series of 46+ tweetsJohn Stewart blogged about how to discuss changes in higher education finance, and an Oklahoma University provost describing the impacts of state budget cuts.

In this post I’ll discuss the next two chapters, 8 and 9, “City of Broken Dreams” and “Getting to Graduation.”  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.

8: City of Broken Dreams

Once again, it’s clear to me that 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.  Paying the Price is about the rest of us, the majority of learners, the bulk of America’s higher ed experience.

Chapter 8 focuses on the experience of students in one major city, Milwaukee.  It’s a good exemplar of low income and/or minority populations within Wisconsin.

Milwaukee, by Ron Reiring

It also reminds us that the clear majority of college students attend very local institutions: “More than three in four students attend colleges within fifty miles of their homes, continuing their relationships with families, neighbors, and nearby institutions as they pursue degrees.” (Kindle location 3781)

Milwaukee students tended to be less well supported than those attending other state institutions, and fared less well (3837ff).  The state university there is relatively starved for resources compared to the Wisconsin branch.  Privatization of higher ed hit UW-Milwaukee very hard:

Once, going to UW–Milwaukee cost relatively little because of the large state subsidy. Today, students and the families must use their incomes and savings—if they have any— along with grants and loans to pay the tuition bills (3935)

Meanwhile, the real costs of living and studying in Milwaukee are higher than those of other areas.  “The result is de facto segregation in higher education.” (3975)

Goldrick-Rab freights her research with heartbreaking personal stories.  We learn about hard-working and ambitious Alicia, who drops out after “spen[ding] eight semesters in school” (3894), and Anne, nearly derailed by odd housing policies (4163ff).  Jose’s positive story (4101ff) is in sharp contrast.

One key detail I don’t want to miss: “the childcare program at her university was greatly oversubscribed, as are the majority of such programs across the country.” (3868)

9: Getting to Graduation 

This chapter focuses on graduation rates, seeking to understand how they are impacted by financial aid.

The author reminds us of the slowness of those rates.  For example, “[s]ix years after beginning college, just one in two of the students in the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study had graduated with a credential of any kind.” (4308)  However, the majority of students Goldrick-Rab’s team studied “either completed college or were still enrolled” after six years (4429).

That team also studied a specific scholarship to see if it improved graduation rates.  Intriguingly it did, but only for students working towards a four year degree; students pursuing two-year credentials saw little benefit (4521ff).

Once again Paying the Price turns to personal stories.  We read of Ian Williams who worked very hard and won a degree, albeit with heavy loan amounts (4364ff), and of Tyler, who withdrew after years of work.  Chloe decided to quit college in favor of the military, and is much happier as a result (4447ff).

The chapter’s conclusion?  “If we want to lower the price to help people focus on school and complete their degrees on time, then financial aid as it is now designed may not be the best approach.” (4552)

Discussion questions

  1. Would a large number of students be helped if states equalized support across public universities?
  2. Should we rethink normal graduation rates (four years for bachelor’s, two for associate’s) as anomalous?  “[T]he overwhelming majority [of poor students] had not gone to college continuously.” (4417)
  3. “The most important lesson this experiment taught us is that financial aid is not money.”  (4552)  Can someone unpack this?

For next Monday, February 27th, we’ll finish the book.  That means the last chapter, 10: Making College Affordable, plus two appendices: methodology of the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study and an Overview of Wisconsin Higher Education.

(Milwaukee photo by Ron Reiring)

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