How to make college affordable again: _Paying the Price_

Our reading of Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price concludes, as we have reached the last chapter and two appendixes.  The book has been a powerful, meticulously researched, and vital work 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

More news items have cropped up which support the book’s findings.  For example, a Washington Post story pointed to poor students using GoFundMe to crowdsource their college expenses.

In this post I’ll discuss the final chapter, “Making College Affordable.”  I will add just a few notes about the appendixes.

To participate in this book club discussion, 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 reading Paying the Price, check the posts about the book so far under this tag.

10: Making College Affordable

This is where the author, after having offered extensive criticism of the financial aid system, now shares her recommendations for improving the situation.  Those ideas are detailed and policy-oriented, and I can try to hit the highlights here.

First, some context and summaries.  Goldrick-Rab neatly sums up the preceding chapters like so:

When nearly 75 percent of American families find college unaffordable, and the means-tested financial aid system fails to do its job even for the poorest, it is time for a change. (Kindle location 4577)

She adds this powerful observation: “Directing dollars one way does not ensure their purchasing power if it does not also control costs and ensure that other subsidies remain.” (4592)  In other words, aid for tuition can easily fall short when other aid softens and college costs continue to rise.

There is a political framework supporting this current structure.  It’s one run by the nation’s financial elite (4641), and for their benefit: “What if all children were able to go to college simply by filling out an application and walking in the door  What would be left to distinguish the elite?” (4653)  (I have questions about this below)  This class consciousness powers the chapter, leading to a powerful concluding charge:

Will the children of the wealthy leave college with elite networks, the sons and daughters of the middle class with degrees they can use, and the next generation of low-income Americans with mainly debt and despair? (5049)

In contrast, several times the chapter compares college with high school.  Americans have for decades agreed that the latter should be free to all comers, and include financial support for food depending on need (4911).

One recommendation to address this problem is to shift our collective attention away from college debt details, and consider instead “making the first few years of college or the initial degree free to all, as a public good” (4712).  Later Goldrick-Rab calls this “First Degree for Free” and “making the associate degree free to all students who pursue it… [W]e [should] establish that degree as the new ‘first degree'” (4905ff).  I hear echoes of the Bernie Sanders plan here, later repurposed (after initial disparagement) by the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Another call to action concerns information and transparency.  Goldrick-Rab has detailed plans for improving Department of Education information design  (4725, 4764), communication timelines (4732), and producing “a road map of what the real price of attendance will be over the next four years” (4752).

One set of solutions changes how academic institutions handle financial aid.  Paying the Price wants colleges and universities to cease reducing aid during a student’s course of study (on a personal note, I experienced this, when my support amount dropped between my first two years at the University of Michigan, 1985-7) (4758).  Campus financial aid departments should draw students to other sources of assistance, namely federal and state support, such as food stamps (4776).  They can also expand the amount of emergency cash assistance they give to struggling students (4782) while increasing on-campus child care resources (4801).

Merit scholarships need reformatting or elimination, since “[s]pending on non-need-based aid perpetuates inequality” (4896; 4882ff).  As the author acidly observes, drawing on a 2007 study,

When the children from families with resources get [merit aid] scholarships, parents buy them cars.  But when the children of poor families get financial aid, they eat. (4904)

Colleges and universities can do even more, starting with controlling costs without sacrificing quality.  One way of achieving this is through “[a]ccreditation reform and greater accountability” (4933).  Higher ed can also “update their approaches to student services, identifying effective practices to teaching and learning, and finding ways to increase capacity”; a short reading list is supplied (6357 n. 69), and Tennessee Promise approvingly indicated.

State governments need to play a major role in improving financial aid.  At one level they simply need to spend more money on a per-student basis, aiming at a return to previously high amounts (4841ff).  States should also rebalance resource allocations across public systems for fairness, so that individual campuses are neither over- or under-funded (4875).

At the federal level the author recommends “align[ing] and coordinat[ing]… higher education policy and social policies aimed at helping poor, working, and middle-class families” (4794).  One shouldn’t reverse gains from another.  For example, “[c]ollege enrollment should toward the work requirement associated with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” (4801)  Students would benefit from an increased income protection allowance (4834).  Paying the Price also calls on the Department of Education to “provid[e] living cost calculations for all colleges and universities using existing federal data” (4828), since many colleges and universities publish inaccurate (often unrealistically low) data.  Moreover, work-study needs to be reformed, expanding its reach and redirecting its operations towards poor students (4841).  The federal government can help make these improvements happen by redirecting funds from “subsidies to for-profit universities and tax credits that are demonstrably ineffective” (5028).


1: Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study: Methodology

This section outlines the Wisconsin research very clearly. As I am not a social scientist, I cannot comment on this professionally.

2: Overview of Wisconsin Higher Education

This is a detailed and concise introduction to the Wisconsin public higher education sector, with an emphasis on how its financial structures have changed over time.  I was particularly struck by this graph, which clearly demonstrated the fact of public disinvestment:

Wisconsin state support of higher ed per $1000 in income

Discussion questions

  1. What do you make of these concluding recommendations?  Are they practical and effective?  Do you see them making a difference in your state?
  2. Here’s a powerful and dark observation: “[T]he financial aid system serves [a political function].  It allows liberals to feel good and the poor to feel indebted, while at the same time providing a scapegoat for conservatives to blame.” (4615) Is this right?
  3. Similarly, the author argues that “the privileged class is largely determining the policies concerning college access.” (4641)  Are American education policies this oligarchic?

And that’s the end of our reading.  Many thanks to fellow book club members for reading and commenting along, both here and elsewhere.

Coming up soon, we’ll decide on our next reading!

(graph used with permission)

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in readings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to make college affordable again: _Paying the Price_

  1. Dr. David Edwin Stone says:

    I happened to catch a musician with a song about student loan debt at the Lancaster Roots and Blues Festival this weekend. Nice to have sounds and a voice to go along with the analysis.

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    I bought the eBook version — to get it right away and for the zoom but am still not that far into it. What can I say? The obsession of collecting (including for reading group books) and too much news. Fortunately, a digital reading group is not anchored to time or space.

    You might be looking at a change of for the next book. Then, coming back to higher ed from a related perspective, please consider Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed — and having her on FTTE Forum.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *