U.S. Must Address Roadblocks to Paying for College, Professor Says
Most everyone agrees that a college education lays the groundwork for escaping poverty. But Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and the author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, points out that paying for college presents a huge roadblock to that strategy.
Goldrick-Rab was a keynote speaker at the SXSWedu Conference & Festival earlier this month, where she spoke about student loan debt and the high price of higher education, and she also provided GoodCall® with some post-presentation points on paying for college.
Paying for college presents an access problem
In low-income areas, at least 75% of ninth-grade students say they plan to attend college; however, Goldrick-Rab says only 60% actually make the transition. Of those who begin postsecondary education, she notes that 40% won’t get anything – not even an associate degree or a certificate. But those students do leave with a parting “gift” – student loan debt.
So why should others care about students dropping out of college? She has several reasons. Taxpayers spend $200 billion a year on financial aid, and they need to evaluate the return when only 40% of low income students complete college.
College is no longer affordable, and Goldrick-Rab says that’s an access problem. The Pell Grant is the government’s promise to send needy students to college. “If you want to go to college and you don’t have the money, we’ve got your back – but this 50-year-old system is broken.”
Goldrick-Rab and her team undertook a research project that involved following 3,000 Pell Grant recipients in Wisconsin for six years. “We observed their classes, their grades, their financial aid, their jobs, and their lives.” The researchers also asked the students about their values, how they spent their money, how long they sleep, and even how much time they spent partying.
In addition, some students were given extra grant money to measure the effect of this additional income.
Why Pell Grants haven’t been the answer
Goldrick-Rab and her team learned that the federal Pell Grant was supposed to make college affordable, but this is no longer the case. While the cost of college has increased, state support for higher education has dropped sharply. “Today, rather than covering 100% of the cost of attendance at a public institution, it covers less than two-thirds of the cost of attending a community college, and one-third of the cost at a four-year public institution.”
Unfortunately, neither students nor their families know how much of the expenses will be covered until the students are already enrolled and are actually attending classes. And by then, the effects can be devastating.
For example, the mother of Chloe, one of the students in the study, earned a little more than $25,000 a year. The expected family contribution was $2,500, but Chloe’s mom could not afford this amount. At the time, the student’s community college costs (including $3,196 in tuition, in addition to other expenses, such as housing, food, transportation, etc.) topped $15,500 a year.
Chloe received a partial Pell Grant in the amount of $2,958. The most she could get in federal loans was $5,500 – and she couldn’t get the Parent Plus Loan because of her mom’s credit history. “Pell Grants were a way to ensure that low-income people with a history of bad experiences with payday loans, credit cards, and the like, wouldn’t have to get a risky loan, but now, 90% of all Pell Grant recipients who complete college degrees have loans,” Goldrick-Rab laments.
There are several problems with this scenario for paying for college. First, she says that at least one-third of public colleges and universities are underestimating the cost of living off campus – to the tune of $3,000.
And there’s not much reason for them to be truthful. “If you want to lower your price as a college or university and get accolades and more applicants, just reduce your estimate of how much it will cost to live off campus.”
But there’s another problem. Ian, another student in the study, worked to help his mother financially. If he stopped working to attend school, his family would lose that source of income. So technically, Goldrick-Rab says financial aid is not sufficient unless it also covers these types of income changes.
Low-income students are typically first-generation students, and many don’t understand the financial aid process when it comes to paying for college. For example, they don’t know that they need to refile every year. Goldrick-Rab says they also might not understand that schools may offer a grant the first year – because they’re trying to attract students – but not for the rest of a student’s college career.
The work vs. study conflict
Another obstacle is the academic requirements during the initial transition period. Most students need to maintain a certain GPA to qualify for a Pell Grant, but this can be difficult if they’re working or have other pressing needs. Remember Chloe? She worked two part-time jobs while also taking 18 credit hours. Not surprisingly, it became too much, and she would fall asleep in class. Her grades starting slipping. However, until she secured the loan she applied for, she couldn’t stop working.
Chloe received notification that she was on academic probation. Not being familiar with this terminology, Chloe thought it meant that she was no longer eligible to attend school, so she dropped out – with a loan that now needed to be repaid. Goldrick-Rab says this is typical for students in the study. “While 65% borrowed money – an average of $5,000 – for their first year of college, more than 2 in 5 students ended up with no credential, but they still had debt.”
Ideally, work-study would be a better option for students. However, Goldrick-Rab explains that most schools have very long waiting lists for these jobs. Some students have to work, and many work more than one job. Shifts often conflict with class schedules – which means students must choose between working or going to class.
The basic needs problem
“When I would encounter some sort of crisis, I could call my grandfather for help, and he would give me a lecture and a check.” But Goldrick-Rab says these students don’t have that type of security net when paying for college. And that’s not the only difference. She says their primary concern is not that they lack a cellphone, laptop, or car. They have more basic needs:
- 24% of students were food-insecure.
- 16% had trouble paying rent on time.
- 13% of community college students are homeless.
College students with children present a unique challenge because they are more likely to work full-time, attend school part-time, and experience child-care issues, resulting in a dismal 27% completion rate in the span of six years.
The answer to paying for college
There isn’t one specific answer. Broad changes need to be made in several areas. “Money is a problem. This isn’t a technocratic problem. It is a complex, systemic problem.”
Since most college expenses are not tuition and fees, but instead, living expenses, Goldrick-Rab believes that higher ed needs to work with communities to lower those costs. “Have you ever tried to learn when you haven’t eaten or slept?” She’s in favor of expanding the National School Lunchroom program to higher ed.
She also believes that colleges and universities can partner with their communities to meet some of these needs. “In every community, there are people who operate food banks and food pantries. They have lots of food that can be leveraged for food scholarships. They can provide students with groceries every few weeks.”
Goldrick-Rab advocates colleges working with local housing authorities to provide affordable housing without penalizing tenants who attend school on a full-time basis.
She’s also in favor of overhauling the financial aid process. “Some people can’t even complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) because their families can’t provide documentation or may not have filed taxes. Other families make too much money to get a Pell Grant, but they don’t make enough to pay for school.”
Her other suggestions to make paying for college more realistic include:
- Lowering the price of attending school.
- Bringing states back to table.
- Instead of building bigger, fancier dorms, schools should focus on making affordable places to live.
- Restoring the value of work. Fighting for the $15 minimum wage.
- Making work-study work again.
“Employers want students when they graduate, but they’re not doing much to help them graduate.” Goldrick-Rab recommends that companies hire college students and provide regular shifts so they don’t have to choose between working and going to class.
She is also an advocate of states and the federal government offering the first degree for free. It’s free to attend public high schools, and Goldrick-Rab believes this policy should be extended to the 13th and 14th years of education. “The 20th Century would have looked really different if, a hundred years ago, we hadn’t made high school free; I believe that we can and we will do better.”
And she’s putting her money where her mouth is with the creation of The Fast Fund (Faculty and Students Together). The fund provides money to high school and college teachers who can then distribute aid to students when they see an immediate need, without applications and bureaucratic paperwork.