Paying the Price:
College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream
One of the most sustained and vigorous public debates today is about the value—and, crucially, the price—of college. But an unspoken, outdated assumption underlies all sides of this debate: if a young person works hard enough, they’ll be able to get a college degree and be on the path to a good life.
That’s simply not true anymore, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, and with Paying the Price, she shows in damning detail exactly why. Quite simply, college is far too expensive for many people today, and the confusing mix of federal, state, institutional, and private financial aid leaves countless students without the resources they need to pay for it. Drawing on an unprecedented study of 3,000 young adults who entered public colleges and universities in Wisconsin in 2008 with the support of federal aid and Pell Grants, Goldrick-Rab reveals the devastating effect of these shortfalls. Half the students in the study left college without a degree, while less than twenty percent finished within five years. The cause of their problems, time and again, was lack of money. Unable to afford tuition, books, and living expenses, they worked too many hours at outside jobs, dropped classes, took time off to save money, even went without adequate food or housing. In a heartbreaking number of cases, they simply left school—not with a degree, but with crippling debt.
We can fix this problem. Goldrick-Rab closes the book by laying out a number of possible solutions, including a public sector–focused “first degree free” program. What’s not an option, this powerful shows, is doing nothing, and continuing to crush the college dreams of a generation of young people.
—Toni Airaksinen, Quillette
— Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón, president and alumnus of Miami Dade College
— Diane Ravitch
Today’s college students face unprecedented costs to achieve undergraduate degrees. Many of these costs are not reflected on any balance sheet at the university’s financial aid office. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream offers the first truly comprehensive accounting of the toll extracted from a generation of middle and working class Americans who cannot possibly keep pace with the expense of attending college. Goldrick-Rab maps the landscape of America’s college affordability crisis and gives that crisis a human face. She shows us how the system crushes dreams and offers practical solutions for fixing the mess we have made. Goldrick-Rab argues, “The first step in addressing the college affordability crisis is taking the problem seriously.” Anyone who is serious about addressing this crisis must read this book.”
— Melissa Harris-Perry
— Kirkus Book Review
— Marshall Steinbaum, Boston Review
Dr. Z Nicolazzo, Trans* Resilience Blog
—Laurie Taylor, Times Higher Education
I attended your presentation at USC last week and have been meaning to contact you since then. I thought your presentation was superb and during certain times I got really emotional for several reasons, mainly because you brought back so many memories of my undergraduate experience (about 8 years ago). I was one of these low-income students on a Pell Grant when I attended UC Berkeley (UCB). I don't want to overwhelm you with the details of my undergrad experience, but I wish to very briefly share my story with you since my experiences resonated greatly with the 2 student cast studies you showed us.
In my senior year in high school, my Dad was diagnosed with kidney failure and was forced to retire. This put a tremendous burden on my family since my Dad was the main breadwinner. Eventually my parents used much of their life savings to pay his medical bills. That same year I was my high school's salutatorian and was accepted into UCB- so I went. During my first semester of college, the City forced my parents to sell our house due to eminent domain (they were expanding the high school next to our house). So now my parents had to find another home, with a limited income in another neighborhood. In short, my family experienced downward social mobility (and we were already low-income). All this was going on during my first semester at UCB. Obviously, I was physically in Berkeley but my heart and mind was back home (in San Diego, CA). Throughout my years at UCB, there were times when I used my financial aid money to help my parents pay their bills. I felt it was an obligation to help them, but it also hurt me deeply that my family was in this situation- I didn't feel proud about it. Much like the students you studied, I was working two jobs as a FT student but was barely making enough money to survive (I was a server at a restaurant). There were many times when I didn't have money for food (working at a restaurant helped offset some of that). Eventually, I reached my lowest point my sophomore year and was clinically diagnosed with depression when I went to see a physician at our University's clinic. However that didn't help since the physician wrote me a prescription for Prozac, but I couldn't even afford to get the medication due to the co-pay. I didn't want to ask my parents forI know this was pretty long but I just wanted to share my story and thank you for the IMPORTANT work you and everyone you work with are doing. You are giving a voice to students like myself that felt helpless. money since they were barely getting by, plus I didn't want them worrying further, also the stigma associated with people on medication influenced my decision. Eventually, I was placed on academic probation and then kicked out of school. Feeling like a complete failure, I moved back home with my parents. Despite everything that happened, I dedicated myself to helping my parents out with whatever they needed. If they were okay, I was okay. A few months later, I found myself lost. Coming from a large research university, I didn't have any practical skills that employers wanted even though I was a competent person. Who wants to hire someone that only knows how to write an essay? So, I worked at a car wash that year. After a few months, I started feeling more helpless, and angry- very angry at my situation. I figured I had nothing to lose so I appealed to the University and they agreed that what happened to me was beyond my control and was readmitted in Fall 2006 as a sophomore/senior. I came back with a renewed appreciation for the value of education since I knew this was IT, I couldn't fuck this up- no matter what. I returned a different person, and my parents were more or less financially stabilized for the time being. My last 2 years I had a very high GPA, close to a 4.0 and eventually graduated with a double-major after a total of 5 years (plus that 1 year when I was kicked out). Despite all this, four years later I was accepted into the dual master's program at USC in urban planning and public policy and graduated in May 2015. I have recently been accepted into a PhD program in Public and Social Policy where I plan to study poverty, inequality, and impacts of policies on disadvantaged minority communities.
I know this was pretty long but I just wanted to share my story and thank you for the IMPORTANT work you and everyone you work with are doing. You are giving a voice to students like myself that felt helpless. Not to sound trite, but low-income students (of color) aren't supposed to make it for all the reasons you are most definitely aware of (e.g. coming unprepared to college due to crappy public high schools, culture shock, discrimination etc...)- plus your research clearly shows this. My time at UCB was, so far, the shittiest experience ever, but I also had some of the best times of my life. When I was in school, I felt my experience was unique and didn't tell anyone what was happening to me, although I feel my friends could tell something was wrong. Lastly, although I have made it somewhat far in my education, I am still psychologically scarred. I am constantly worried about my finances, even though I don't have anything to worry about because my parents are fine now (we survived), and I have a great job and get paid well (I'm 32 years old now). I frequently feel anxious and do not own many things except for my clothes, books, and laptop. I don't know why exactly (or maybe I do) but I feel financially insecure. As if my world could turn upside down any second, like it did when I had just started undergrad."
— Pedro Ruiz
The students she profiles through her research represent thousands of individuals who pursue a degree in pursuit of social mobility and the American Dream, only to find themselves unable to make ends meet and often drowning in debt. By personalizing our country’s failed higher education policies, this book takes readers beyond national headlines and statistics and into individual lives. Goldrick-Rab’s scholarship fills a critical void in our conversations about the realities of financial aid policy in the face of rapidly rising tuition and important poignant reminder of the ongoing negative impact of state appropriation reductions in this era.”
— F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University
With texture and subtlety, Goldrick-Rab spotlights the journeys of students whose road to educational access and social mobility is obstructed by the current crisis. Equally important, she offers a practical and progressive action plan for creating a more fair and just system.”
—Marc Lamont Hill, author of Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, From Ferguson to Flint and Beyond.
— Library Journal, Starred Review
— Amma Marfo, LinkedIn Blog
More Books from Sara
Charting a New Course to College Affordability
by Andrew P. Kelly and Sara Goldrick-Rab
In this provocative volume, Andrew P. Kelly and Sara Goldrick-Rab argue that the time has come to reform the financial aid system so that it is more effective in promoting college affordability, access, and completion. Reinventing Financial Aid provides a thorough critique of the existing financial aid system, identifies the challenges of reform, presents a host of innovations, and calls on leaders to think more boldly about policy design.
How the Work-First Idea Eroded College Access for the Poor
by Kathleen M. Shaw, Jerry A. Jacobs, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Christopher Mazzeo
Today, a college education is increasingly viewed as the gateway to the American Dream—a necessary prerequisite for social mobility. Yet recent policy reforms in the United States effectively steer former welfare recipients away from an education that could further their career prospects, forcing them directly into the workforce where they often find only low-paying jobs with little opportunity for growth. In Putting Poor People to Work, Kathleen Shaw, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Christopher Mazzeo, and Jerry A. Jacobs explore this troubling disconnect between the principles of “work-first” and “college for all.”