'Paying the Price' and the American crisis in college affordability

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Sara Goldrick Rab’s Paying the Price follows 3,000 low and moderate income students (defined by their receipt of a Pell Grant) over the course of six years from the time they entered college in 2008 until 2014. The results of the study, the most comprehensive longitudinal analysis to-date of the relationship between college price and student achievement (including retention and graduation rates), are harrowing.

Goldrick-Rab tackles a number of myths, including the ideas that for many (if not all) college in the United States is affordable thanks to existing financial aid programmes, it is still possible for students to work their way through school, and that money isn’t the real reason that so few students (especially from low or moderate income families) are completing the credentials they set out to obtain even after a number of ‘extra’ terms.

Combining individual interviews with statistical analysis, Goldrick-Rab reveals that for many, if not the overwhelming majority of low/moderate income students, the price of a college education is the primary barrier to graduation and with it the opportunity to build a financially stable and secure future. She writes:

“Outdated policies that are not up to the task of funding a widely accessible, high-quality system of higher education have compromised the ability of hard-working people from all family backgrounds to complete their degrees and left millions in debt, without a degree, and worse off than when they began… It was meant to provide them a route out of poverty, but for far too many, it left them feeling poorer than ever.” (Goldrick-Rab 2016, 15-17)

This is happening at the same time that a degree or higher-education qualification is more essential than ever before. The result is, at best, an erosion of the American dream, if not its wholesale collapse.

Yet, the crisis that Goldrick-Rab explores is not simply an American crisis. In Canada and the United Kingdom (bar Scotland) tuition fees and living costs have risen substantially year-on-year and similar financial aid systems also threaten to leave the most vulnerable students behind in different ways.

From ‘expected family contributions’ to the increasing reliance on loans as the only way for many students to get by, the challenges faced by American, Canadian and British students are quite similar, as are the changes in education funding, family structures and the broader economy that exacerbate the challenges today’s students face.

These countries also cling to the outdated notion that individuals are the primary beneficiaries of third-level education. While it is true that individuals do benefit, not least in terms of lifetime earnings, there are also massive public benefits to a more educated population including a more skilled workforce, lower rates of social support dependency, and enhanced capacity for entrepreneurship and innovation. As increased participation in higher education and the demands of the modern knowledge economy, particularly in economically-advanced countries, make the individual benefits of a college education increasingly less certain, more states are coming to recognise the public benefits of access and participation in third-level education are now more important than ever. Countries such as France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, and Finland (among others) offer very low tuition (less than $1,000 per year) or tuition-free third-level education as a way of recognising the public value of third-level education.

As Goldrick-Rab points out, even within the United States there are already localised efforts under way to make community college tuition-free (or nearly free), such as the Tennessee Promise. The same is true in the United Kingdom, where tuition remains free in Scotland despite the recent trebling of fees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in the Canadian province of Ontario, which has recently unveiled a new large grants programme that will  make tuition essentially free for low and moderate income families through loans (to be capped at $10,000 per year) will still be heavily in use to cover fees, supplies and living costs.

While imperfect, they remain important first steps in expanding access to higher education. Although sadly, there are no guarantees that with greater access to education, inequality within these societies will necessarily diminish, what will improve is the ability of all young people to make real choices about their future and to do what previous generations have done - prepare themselves for the world and economy at hand rather than the one of their parents or grandparents.

Watch Goldrick-Rab discuss her work on BookTV's After Words here:  https://www.c-span.org/video/?415168-1/words-sara-goldrickrab