Early in her career, Sara Goldrick-Rab was teaching a class at the University of Wisconsin- Madison when she noticed one of her students sleeping. Goldrick-Rab assumed that it was her boring delivery that led to the nap, so she worked to become a better teacher.
However, the same student kept nodding off in class. As her frustration increased, Goldrick-Rab summoned the student to her office hours and demanded to know why she was sleeping through class.
“I’m sorry,” the young woman responded as she burst into tears.
It turned out that the student worked a graveyard shift at a retail store and got off work an hour before class began. She had to work to be able to pay for school, and she chose this job because it paid well and it fit in with her class schedule.
Goldrick-Rab tells this story to illustrate a point:
Many students are paying a steep price for college, one they can barely afford, which takes a financial, physical, and psychological toll. The end result? Many talented, hard-working students end up dropping out, because they are unable to pay that price.
Now the founder of the Hope Center for College Community and Justice in Philadelphia and Professor of Sociology and Medicine at Temple University, Goldick-Rab has undertaken the necessary research to get to the bottom of this issue.
In her book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, Goldrick-Rab lays out the factors that have led college to become unaffordable for so many, and what changes she thinks must occur to the system.
“We all lose when people feel economically insecure and unsafe,” Goldrick-Rab explains, so “what’s best for my kids is that other kids are healthy and safe.”
In the face of a global pandemic, with the ensuing financial insecurity, it’s likely that more families than ever are wondering, “can I afford college?” And many others wonder whether that degree will pay off for their student.
What can we learn and apply from Goldrick-Rab’s research? And what steps can parents take to avoid falling into the debt trap of higher ed?
Goldrick-Rab offers these suggestions:
Talk Openly About Money
Families need to ask themselves some hard questions about what they can genuinely afford to pay for college. Too often, families shy away from these conversations. “People think that talking about money is wrong because it’s putting the price over the experience,” Goldrick-Rab explains. “But the cost is going to affect the experience. If the cost of college is a financial stress for parents, then your kid will feel guilty. They’ll work and not tell you or they’ll go without eating enough and not tell you.”
The cost of college can also have staggering effects well beyond graduation. When figuring out a payment plan, families must factor in that it is not a one-year strategy, but a multi-year burden that they will need to sustain. The same thing is true for the students themselves.
Goldrick-Rab recommends discussing what the student is willing to do in order to pay off loans, which could take up to a decade or two. “if they want to get started on their life immediately without having to pay off debt, they’ll need to take a different path,” Goldrick-Rab warns. These calculations should not include any “fairy tale dreams about scholarships.”
Change the Narrative
The problems begin with the way we judge success according to the prestige of the college our children attend. Goldrick-Rab notes that we’ve bought into the belief that the more expensive a college is, the better it must be. And if it’s expensive and hard to get into, then our kids will compete even harder to get in even though the process is brutal.
“We have to be able to go to a dinner party and feel okay saying, ‘My kid is going to State U’ or ‘My kid is starting out at community college,’” asserts Goldrick-Rab. “That way, we’re reversing the narrative.”