Starting to read _Paying the Price_: Introduction and Possible Lives.

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

Our new book club reading begins.  Let’s dive right into Paying the Price.

In this post I’ll discuss the first two sections, the book’s introduction and chapter 1: Possible Lives.  For each one I’ll outline their contents.  Then I’ll ask some discussion questions.

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 tweet using the hashtag #payingtheprice.

For more information about this reading, check the posts introducing it and about the reading plan.


Here Sara Goldrick-Rab quickly touches on the book’s key themes: that college is much more expensive than it was two generations ago, and that the financial aid system no longer works for many people.  “The bones of the current financial aid system are now more than a half a century old,” which matters a great deal when community college, public university, and private campus prices have nearly doubled in barely 20 years (Kindle locations 215, 163)*.

wisconsin-scholars-longitudinal-study-teamShe also introduces her method, which includes a focus on Wisconsin through the important Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study (132).  The book will also ground data and concepts in the life stories of six actual and representative students.

One key economic context appears in this section: family income has declined in the 21st century for “all but the very wealthiest 5 percent of Americans” (79).

1: Possible Lives

History of modern financial aid, especially from the 1960s on, touching on the 1965 Higher Education Act and the Pell Grant program, preceded by the Truman Commission. Goldrick-Rab then outlines the modern history of state support for public education, including its partial rise from circa 1960 to 1980, then its general decline from that point through today.

How sharp is that decline?  “”Today, the share of state resources invested in higher education is about the same as it was in 1966 (about five dollars for every $ 1,000 of personal income).” (288)  Put another way,

Had states been required to maintain a reasonable level of commitment (say, the ten dollars or so per $ 1,000 of personal income provided in 1981), the total amount states contribute to higher education today would be about $ 146 billion, instead of the $ 81 billion contributed in 2015. (295)

The author then distinguishes some important political and economic divides, such as the federal government’s inability to shape state public university funding and the for-profit sector’s success in winning federal dollars.

A key finding is that the higher education financing system set up a half-century ago is now badly out of date, given changed conditions:

When the Pell program began, Pell Grants subsidized more than 80 percent of the cost of attending the average public university and all of the costs of attending a community college. Things are different now. Today the maximum Pell covers less than one-third of the cost of attending a public four-year college or university and barely 60 percent of the cost of attending a community college. (316)

Financial aid is failing, especially for the poorest students.

One of Goldrick-Rab’s dark conclusions: “The ‘class society’ the Truman Commission feared is now very much a reality, and income inequality is starker than it has been at any time since the Gilded Age.” (393)  Here’s one Commission quote for context: “For the great majority of our boys and girls, the amount of education they may hope to attain depends, not on their own abilities, but on the family or community into which they happened to be born or, worse still, on the color of their skin or the religion of their parents.” (273)

Worse, and it’s worth quoting at length:

Some think that because a college degree brings higher wages, better chances of full-time work, and jobs with benefits, increasing the number of people who attend college can decrease economic inequality. This is a false hope. The social mobility offered by higher education, the opportunity to climb from one rung on the ladder to the next, is not accompanied by any assurance that others higher on the ladder aren’t also moving ahead at an even faster rate. There is no guarantee, in other words, that college-educated people from low-income families will not be left behind. And in American higher education, a vicious cycle of exclusion and adaptation in which resources are unequally distributed in ways that preserve privilege helps to ensure that people from lower-class backgrounds stay behind. (356)

We also meet the book’s main characters, Tyler Olson, Norbert Webster, Ian Williams, Nima Chaudhary, Sophie Schmidt, and Chloe Johnson (427ff).

Discussion questions

  1. Why have state governments pushed down their higher education funding levels?
  2. How much of this crisis is due to the black swan impact of the 2008 financial crash and following recession?
  3. What is the role of K-12 schools in expressing or opposing economic inequality’s impact on student careers?
  4. If you’re an American or living in the US, how does your state’s education history and practice compare to Wisconsin’s?

For next Monday, on to the next two chapters, 2: The Cost and Price of a College Education and 3: Who Gets Pell?

*I’m using Kindle ebook locations, because I’m reading that way.  Is that ok?

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3 Responses to Starting to read _Paying the Price_: Introduction and Possible Lives.

  1. Bryan,
    Thanks for the summary and the key quotes. Paying the Price presents a clear picture of how paying for college is so far out of the reach of so many. While Goldrick-Rab has focused on Wisconsin due to a unique opportunity to get inside the numbers, her finding pertain nationally. As for your questions, here is my take on questions one and two.

    State funding levels (when measured by contribution per student) have been declining for at least 30 years. This coincides with three broad patterns: rising medical and retirement costs, increased prison populations and decreasing per capita net tax revenues. The Great Recession (black swan) changed the year to year numbers but not the trendline.

    These patterns have played out in each state in slightly different ways. Any net upticks in funding have usually been linked to oil revenues (e.g., Alaska, Texas and North Dakota), but the trend has been consistent, with public higher education becoming less of a public good and more of a private privilege. Political perspectives have not been well informed since state funding of higher education is usually reported in gross expenditures rather than per student. As a result, it sometimes looks like there are increases, when the reality is slower decline.

    None of this is to suggest that higher education is a cost efficient enterprise. It is a messy business and rife with opportunities for improvement. But that is another matter. For now, I will close on the observation that will be shared by most college teachers. We rarely have students in class who do not worry about paying for their education. That is why Paying the Price hits so close to home.

    • Great answers, Michael. Intense book so far, isn’t it?
      Definitely an issue with state funding perspectives.
      And this is elegant: “rising medical and retirement costs, increased prison populations and decreasing per capita net tax revenues”.

  2. chairthrower says:

    I’m just going to quickly answer Question 1. I believe since the early 1980s there has been a significant erosion of trust in public institutions in general. This is systemic (and is perhaps coming to a head now, and may in fact start to go the other way.) People don’t respect public institutions the way they did in the rest of the 20th century.

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