This election season Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders aimed to galvanize millennial voters by raising the issue of college debt. In a new book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab lays out why college has grown far too expensive, and why our existing systems of aid so often fail to help students manage their financial obligations. In an interview with The American Prospect, Goldrick-Rab discusses her research, her proposals for reform, and why the price of college needs to be at the forefront of affordability conversations.
Rachel Cohen: A prominent theme in your book is that the nature of going to college has changed, but the policy discussions around college have not really changed.
Sara Goldrick-Rab: There’s been a lot of discussion over the last five years about how the students in college are different. The Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and most of the D.C. policy people recognize that what we used to call a “non-traditional student” is now a traditional student—meaning there’s recognition that college students are now older, more racially diverse, more likely to be a first generation student, more likely to have children, and so on.
So there’s been a lot of talk about that, but as I’ve listened, it’s become very clear to me that these people don’t realize how paying for college has changed. In other words, they recognize that the students are different, but they seem to assume that the same sorts of strategies to pay for college that they were used to 10 or 15 years ago work today.
How are things different?
There’s been a lot of change in a very short period of time. First of all, one of the biggest changes is that families are not getting ahead. Prices are rising and people’s incomes are not keeping pace. And at the same time, college feels less optional than it once did.
Prices have notably risen very dramatically in the public sector, including at community colleges. Community college was supposed to be the one place you could go if everything else was unaffordable.
Another shift has to do with work—it is increasingly difficult to find stable, part-time employment, and this really complicates the ability to match work with school.
And then lastly, there used to be more supports for low-income people who wanted to go to college. Those systems have been dramatically changed since welfare reform, which added work requirements, and made it much harder for people to go to college if they’re on cash assistance, or receiving food stamps.
You say there’s too much focus on the “cost” of college and that really we should be focusing on the price. What do you mean?
The cost is what it actually takes to deliver the education. The price is what the institution charges. The price is going up because states are now putting in less money on a per-student basis. We need to understand that the reason that the price is going up is not because the cost of education is rising quickly, but because the government has stopped putting in their share, which forces tuition in the public sector to increase.
You describe how the longer it takes someone to get their college degree, the less likely it is they will finish. So if students have to switch from being a full-time student to being a part-time one in order to manage school and work, they actually decrease their odds of degree completion. Why is it not slow and steady wins the race?
Part of it is because there’s a momentum issue. If you’re trying to learn, it’s very helpful to do it continuously and to focus. It’s very hard to split your attention, and if you’re a part-time student, and you’re working, and you have a family, and you’re probably doing all kinds of other things—to carry on all those roles, for a long, really extended period of time, is hard. Eventually something gives.
Here’s the thing though. The idea that it’s best to go to college full-time has also led to a movement that I strongly disagree with. Now people are telling kids that they should take 15 credits a term, not just 12 [which represents a full-time class load], so that they can finish faster. But that’s hardly realistic unless we make it so that students can really focus. There have been really awful changes to financial aid policy to push people to go faster. The broad assumption is that students just don’t know they should go faster. I find that offensive, and without empirical basis.
More so than just affordability, your book spoke to the importance of public higher education institutions. You raised a lot of questions and concerns about the subsidies the government funnels to private institutions, especially as public colleges grow more expensive, and struggle to stay afloat.
I don’t have many colleagues, if any, who have been speaking about this and I really don’t get it. I don’t get what’s so terrifying about questioning the distribution of sizeable taxable resources to private education. We subsidize private colleges and universities in many ways, and one is through the tax code, and the other is through federal student aid. We have a voucher system in higher education—Milton Friedman liked this thing. This was all about choice, and the theory that the only colleges that would exist were those that provided a good quality service at a good price to the so-called consumer. And the federal aid system would facilitate that choosing. I think it’s sort of laughable that people thought this would work, and that this system would put low-income people in a position where they could somehow exact accountability from powerful institutions.
I don’t know how that was even going to happen, but I think there’s also this question of change over time. I think initially there was a capacity issue. We didn’t have enough public colleges and universities. But now we’ve got plenty of public seats, and I think most of our private institutions are drawing away resources that should go to the public sector.
I’ll add that there is a class of private colleges that exist to serve the most vulnerable—one of them is religious schools, one of them is for our students of color, like HBCUs, and one is tribal schools. Those institutions are a very different category of private schools, and I think we could easily carve out another category for them to continue receiving federal aid, or make them state-supported in some fashion. I think it’s legitimate to say we don’t have a public alternative for those schools.
You’ve done a lot to draw attention to the for-profit college sector. Some defenders say these are the only institutions that will educate poor black and Latino students. How do you respond to that?
That’s nonsense. Any opportunity at a for-profit is available at a community college with sufficient resources. Now, many community colleges are underfunded so they can’t provide night classes, which are what many low-income students want to take. But if community colleges are funded appropriately, then they almost always expand their course offerings to the evening. The University of Phoenix, [a for-profit], invests all these dollars into advertising, but community colleges don’t spend their limited resources on advertising.
This past summer, when Chris Christie came out with a proposal to divert public funds away from New Jersey’s poor urban schools towards wealthier suburban schools, the public was outraged. Yet as you discuss in your book, this happens regularly in higher education, and we don’t have the same sorts of reactions. We don’t direct more resources to higher education institutions serving the most needy students, or even really talk about how we should be doing so.
Yes, the process is quite opaque. Even when people talk about declining investments in higher education, the discussion is never about the breakout in types of institutions, which means people aren’t really asking the right questions. I think there really are big tensions because people assume that higher education is not like K-12, and if there are inequities existing in the system, then it has to do with people’s personal failings. But it’s really a systematic underinvestment in institutions like the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
And then look at the Community College of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. Why should UPenn be getting federal student aid with the endowment it has, when the Community College of Philadelphia sits there without the resources it needs?
You’ve done research to show that many college students are going hungry, lacking the resources to afford food. You’ve proposed creating a subsidized meal program for college students, just like we have in K-12 public education.
Yes, and this idea has gained some traction. Most people don’t seem to realize that people end up hungry in college, and once I proved that and started to explain the types of fixes out there—well, I’ve heard from folks who disagree with me on 90 percent of things I say, yet call my proposals to curb college hunger “common sense.” And this gives me a little hope that maybe under a Clinton presidency we could get this one done.