Making higher education affordable

Fixing the financial aid system may mean starting again from scratch

Sara Goldrick-Rab’s mission is to make higher education the accessible and affordable place that families want and need it to be.

In Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (2016, University of Chicago Press), Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, describes what was learned from nearly a decade of  studying how changes to higher ed financial aid impacts young people and families.

“The hard truth is that while financial aid reduces the ever-increasing cost of college, more often than not it still leaves families with unmanageable prices,” she says.

“When it comes to the group that this financial aid system was designed to help—families earning an average of $16,000 a year—the net cost of college now amounts to a whopping 84 percent of their income.”

What was the impetus for your study?

Two of the biggest donors to my university wanted advice on creating a private scholarship program.

They said, “We want to encourage people from low-income families to get college degrees. If we give this money away, who do we give it to? How would you target it?”

I did some research and came away with the sense that there really wasn’t a good answer for them—we really didn’t know where it would be most effective. Some programs give it to students based on merit and some based on need, but the impacts of those programs vary tremendously.

So we decided to experiment. Some people would get a scholarship based on need and some wouldn’t, and we’d follow them over time and see what happened. I felt the only way to really help students was to get more evidence to answer questions like these.

Were there surprises?

Yes, and they started happening right away.

For example, one of the first things was that if we sent someone a letter that said, “You’re going to get extra money for college,” we assumed they’d be happy. But as soon as we started meeting students who got those letters, we were surprised at how many of them were actually not happy—they were suspicious.

They really weren’t sure what was going on. They thought it was a scam. That was the first indication that financial aid, in general, is a program that people don’t trust.

Another surprise came when we asked students how they used money, how they made money, and so on. I expected to hear students say, for example, that they didn’t have the books they needed for class or they didn’t have the laptop they needed.

We did not expect to hear students tell us they didn’t have enough food to eat. We did not expect to witness somebody moving into a homeless shelter. And, working during college was much harder than I had previously understood.

I waited tables to work my way through college, and when I needed more hours, or needed to work a specific shift because of my classes, they gave it to me.

Well, now we see the opposite. We see students who can’t get enough hours, who have to work at multiple part-time jobs to get enough hours, who are constantly at risk of losing their job if they have to be in class.

On food insecurity, you suggest expanding the National School Lunch Program into college. Is that possible?

It’s more possible than I thought it was when I wrote that. I’ve been having conversations on both the left and the right, and I’m also talking with faith-based organizations.

The National School Lunch Program exists for children, not entirely because it’s good for kids to eat, but it’s also there because it’s a moral thing to do.

People have a hard time envisioning kids going hungry while they’re trying to learn, and I think that it won’t be too long before they also have a hard time with people sitting in college classrooms without enough to eat.

You wrote, “The problems facing public higher education are not a function of too few resources, but rather the fault of those who are using the resources.”

Many people think we just need to put more money into higher ed. And, sure, it’d be nice. Raise taxes and put more money in higher ed. Great. I can’t object to that. But we already have a lot of money in higher ed. We’re just not allocating it well.

I believe we’ve been funding choice in higher ed over affordability. It’s not that dissimilar to the K12 situation. We’re funding school choice before we’ve actually funded our public schools adequately. And we’re spending $40 billion per year on for-profit colleges and universities in this country.

It’s pretty clear to me that the community colleges are underfunded. All we need to do—not to sound too simplistic—is take that money and put it in the community college sector.

The reason that’s so hard is that virtually every congressperson in the House and Senate is taking money right now from the for-profit colleges to not do that. I think it’s important that we explain that, rather than suggest there just isn’t enough money.

Some people say simplifying the FAFSA and expanding the Pell Grant would increase access, but you say that won’t solve the underlying problems.

That’s right. Making the FAFSA application simpler doesn’t change the resources you get once you’ve done it, and those resources are pathetic. Those resources are too thin.

Basically, right now the FAFSA is an invitation to debt. I get it—we want them to fill it out. We want them to get every dollar that’s on the table.

But to distribute a $2,000 Pell Grant—when the cost of college is $20,000—is to say to the student, “Here you go. Here’s your $2,000, now you come up with the other $18,000.”

If we could expand the Pell Grant to make it actually do what it was intended to do—to cover the cost of attending a public two- or four-year college—I’d be all for it. The problem is that’s not going to happen.

I’m an optimistic person, but I am also an observer of program dynamics and funding for poor people’s programs. So, double the Pell, triple the Pell, that’s good. But I’d put the chance of that happening at less than 2 percent.

You said you’re an optimistic person, and your book was written before the election. Has that optimism changed since?

That’s a really good question. It was not an outcome I expected, and it absolutely does make the road to the things I describe so much harder.

We’re moving in the opposite direction with regard to the for-profits, for example. I’d want to curtail spending on them, but I believe it’s going to go up now. But the idea that we therefore don’t take steps—that’s not ground that I’m willing to cede.

What it has meant for my work is that part of my job now is just to keep people’s hopes up in an optimistic way. Hope is a strategy. If you don’t even have hope that you can fix this, you’re not going to do anything.

You’ve advocated for hitting the reset button and starting over.

We have a system that wasn’t built for our current situation. I think there’s just a point at which you’ve got to say this status quo can not and will not ever work for who we’re educating today and what our goals are.

Our goals in the past were to make college available to those who really wanted it, who basically had some kind of privilege, whether it was financial or academic, to make it possible.

Our goals today are not that. This country needs a workforce with at least some part of post-secondary education. If that’s the new reality, then we need a totally different financing system.

Our goal is to slowly inch toward a system in which we provide a high-quality, affordable—by which I mean free—public option.

I’m not saying Harvard becomes free. I’m not saying private colleges disappear. I’m not saying we pay everybody’s living costs. I’m saying we do like we do with high schools. We don’t charge tuition and we provide targeted programs for people who need help with living costs. 

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.


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