Paying the Price on students trying to live through college

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American DreamLet’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.

In this post I’ll discuss the next two chapters, 4+5, “Making Ends Meet” and “On Their Own”.  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 1/3rd of the way in as of this week.

“Making Ends Meet”

How do students pay for college and survive at the same time?  Goldrick-Rab’s discussion here is driven in part by her acknowledgement of three recent developments: wage stagnation or decline for the majority of Americans, the drive to get even more people into higher ed, and increasing higher education costs.  That combination finds students increasingly stressed, suffering emotionally and financially, and finding it even harder to complete a degree.

This is especially true when we look at students’ families.  Consider, for example, this penetrating datum that lays bare one reality of the American economy in our time: “Thirty-eight percent of students had no expected family contribution at all.”(1753)  Think about that level of poverty, and that we are trying to get students from that economic stratum into colleges – while at the same time cutting state support to public institutions and ramping up financialization.  Indeed, for some of these students, “in order to ensure they had what they needed to succeed, payment would need to be provided to their families to offset lost income.” (1758) The author goes on, acidly: “Of course, this did not happen.” College is a hardship, a body blow for a lot of Americans, based on the way we structure its economics.

One way to minimize that injury is for students to work.  Many American college students have worked before now, of course.  I worked throughout all three of my degrees, sometimes full time.  But Goldrick-Rab points out that things have gotten worse.

To begin with, there’s a historical shift: “In 1960, 25 percent of full-time college students… worked while enrolled.  Five decades later, national statistics show that over 70 percent of undergrads are working” (2175).  Which someone escapes older folks (hello, Boomers) complaining about kids these days not working as hard as they did, back in their time.

Moreover, the structures and practices of work have shifted, because they’re embedded with the financialization of higher education.  First, “students are much more likely to both borrow and work.” (1842)  So during school and afterwards, these students have higher financial burdens and less time for study.  Second, black students (and their families) take on more debt than most other Americans (1872ff).  Third, when students are working on their academics, they are not working at jobs that pay – i.e., higher education imposes a serious opportunity cost on families, especially the poorest (see also chapter 1 for this).  Fourth, a sizable chunk of loans are held by private banks, which are more likely than federally-backed ones to jack up interest rates, and have fewer protections (1999).

Fifth, and the killer here, “the real student debt crisis” involves students who do not achieve a degree.  They still owe loans *and* have lost precious income-earning years.  “Even paying off a modest amount of loans puts them in compromising positions” (1993).

Goldrick-Rab personalizes these trends with several stories about the students she introduced earlier, including a heartbreaking one about a student falling asleep in class because she worked long night shifts before morning class meetings, Chloe’s juggling two of three jobs, and Matt’s tale of reducing classes so he can work more to pay for those classes.  Actually, many of these students report falling asleep thanks to overwork.

This chapter concludes by sketching out the world of work available to these students.  It’s mostly poorly paid and unpredictably scheduled (2246ff).  Goldrick-Rab quietly notes that “some Ivy League schools… employ Pell recipients to clean bathrooms and residence halls… rather than hiring unionized staff” (2337).  There is also a good discussion about student attitudes towards loans, investigating why some take the maximum amount, and why others avoid borrowing (2029ff).  At the end are grim notes about the psychological toll exacted upon these would-be college graduates.

“On Their Own”

One of the key features of undergraduate education is that it gives traditional-age students (18-22) the opportunity to live on their own, learning survival skills.  How has the new financial organization of higher ed changed that experience?

For one, financial aid is now a form of general income, rather than just being directed to tuition (2587).

For another, Goldrick-Rab raises the possibility that American higher ed has overreached.  One college financial aid officer observes: “From where I sit I don’t know that everyone is college material.” (2593)  Another complains that students are less knowledgeable than they used to be (“younger than they were ten or twenty years ago” (2599).  I appreciate Tyler’s story (2542ff), because it portrays a non-martyred, non-Mary-Sue student.  He “makes mistakes”, as some would put it, or gets into a lot of trouble, as others would say: fighting, drinking, and car problems.  Are a significant number of students in college who aren’t ready for it?

Paying the Price thinks not.  “we saw a wider array of situations where students were left with far too few resources to cover their living expenses, and this rarely seemed to be their fault.” (2605)  Instead, that some students “would experience situational poverty for the first time… is part of the new economics of college.” (2611)  For example,

Twenty-four percent of our students indicated that in the past month they did not have enough money to buy food, ate less than then felt they should, or cut the size of their meals because there was not enough money… 6 percent of students said [that] they ever went without eating for an entire day because they lacked enough money for food (2617)

[O]ne in five students was hungry, and 13 percent were homeless. (2642)

[C]ollege students experience food insecurity at a higher rate than the general public (2642)

That’s why new organizations have arisen, such as Single Stop, and older ones grown, like campus food pantries for hungry students.  That’s why Wick Sloane appealed to the federal government to give peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to 9 million students.

Once more the economics of higher education war against the academics, since “when a student is hungry, she has difficulty learning” (2675ff).

Goldrick-Rab adds housing problems to food, noting that “20 percent of our students also experienced housing insecurity.” (2700)

In addition to the academic and humanitarian problems experienced by these students, this chapter adds another problem.  American higher ed often values highly its socializing function, as students come to campus to meet people, including mates and business connections.  Yet students suffering from exhaustion, poverty, hunger, or housing insecurity are less likely to make those social connections (2817ff).  They don’t want to share their problems, and counseling services usually can’t reach out to them without first being approached.

Discussion questions

  1. Is America making a mistake in encouraging so many people to go to higher education, when we haven’t shaped the appropriate financial support structures for them to succeed?  Note the observation from one financial aid professional: “From where I sit I don’t know that everyone is college material.” (2593)
  2. Can nonprofits and foundations make a difference here, or are real solutions up to governments and/or academic institutions themselves?
  3. Can K-12 schools play a role in better preparing students for these tought post-secondary experiences, such as improving financial literacy?

For next Monday, February 13th, we’ll move on to the next two chapters, 6: Family Matters and 7: Making the Grade.

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2 Responses to Paying the Price on students trying to live through college

  1. So far, this is a really depressing book. The picture illustrated by the personal stories and quantified by the relevant data is proof of the subtitle: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.

    I am most struck by the disconnect between the reality of student’s ability to pay and the rationale behind the programs available to them. Two observations jump out. First, the ability to “work one’s way through college” is far different from when today’s legislators once did that themselves. This simple fact, has contributed to much misunderstanding about the true cost of attending college. Second, the extent of food, housing and family insecurity that exists for Pell Grant recipients is staggering. For example, I was unaware of the Single Stop programs, particularly at community colleges.

    As for your questions, my two cents:
    1.) While higher education may not be for everyone, it is the right approach for more than can afford it under existing financial constraints. Goldrick-Rab does an excellent job of establishing the representativeness of the specific stories. I’m convinced she has the big picture in focus.
    2) Non-profits/philanthropists can aid a few, but a measurable difference can only be made through additional public funding. Academic institutions do need to restrain costs (a different issue than addressed by this book), but philanthropy, though able to make a dent, can’t make up for the decline in support per student that has been going on for decades. The recent news of an average increase in public funding this year, when normalized per student and adjusted for inflation, only means that the average rate of decline in public funding has slowed.
    3) Financial literacy, particularly for the college-bound could be improved. At least one of the students in the book made bad choses through sheer financial ignorance. The rest seem to have acted fairly well in the face of sometimes daunting financial challenges and the limitations of the programs available. Which brings me back to 2) above, yes financial literacy can be better, but if the net cost of education continues to rise, that literacy will only inform potential students about how far the dream of higher education has receded from their grasp.

    I have resisted reading ahead, and hope that Goldrick-Rab will find some good news somewhere. Reading on with hope and increasing alarm.

  2. SEAN says:

    posted a lengthy and leading question/comment on the google doc

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