Monday, September 12, 2016


Paying the Price: A Review

What if we rebuilt the financial aid system around the ways that students actually live?  Sara Goldrick-Rab takes an admirable shot in Paying the Price.

Goldrick-Rab is a well-known sociologist of higher education and a champion of free community college.  Paying the Price is an analysis of the impact of financial aid on low-income students, focusing in particular on a small set of students in Wisconsin in the years following the Great Recession.  Longtime readers of her public work might be surprised at the relatively methodical and non-polemical tone of Paying the Price; I actually missed her distinctive voice as I read.  Still, as a contribution to our understanding of financial aid and its impact on low-income students, it’s remarkably useful.

Her normative commitment, like mine, is to expanded real access to higher education.  The book traces the educational journeys of several students through various public colleges and universities in Wisconsin.  The idea -- largely successful -- is to show the shortcomings of financial aid in the real economic worlds of relatively representative students.  She and her collaborators isolated the variable by providing extra scholarships to some randomly chosen students, and then tracing the effects - statistically and biographically -- over time.

As someone who has spent the last thirteen years working at community colleges, I can attest that she gets a lot of seldom-noticed details right.  For example:

Goldrick-Rab leaves out a few.  For instance:

Rather than championing some new scholarship or aid program, or even a beefed-up “maintenance of effort” requirement for states, Goldrick-Rab cuts the Gordian knot and advocates for making the first two years of public college free.  She notes that “free” has a simplicity that’s badly missing from the current system, and that it builds on free K-12 and free public library models.  Tennessee’s model comes closest to what she’s asking, although it’s a “last dollar” model rather than a K-12 one.  Early results from Tennessee are encouraging, though the jury is out on the political will to sustain it over time.

It’s easy to nitpick this point or that one, but Goldrick-Rab’s significant contribution here is building policy around actual students.  It’s easy to postulate how an ideal student should behave, or to build a policy on the assumption that every student is 18 years old, attending full-time, living on campus, and receiving ample family support.  It’s much harder to build policy on the complicated lives that actual students actually live.  It’s to her credit that Goldrick-Rab goes into the weeds.  Here’s hoping that people who control state appropriations hear her...

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