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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:

  • The financial aid system works on the assumption that money flows from the parent(s) to the student, rather than the other way around.  But that’s not how the world works. For many low-income students, money flows from the student to the family. For them, the opportunity cost of college -- income foregone while they study -- is as relevant as the price.  Abandoning their most important support network isn’t an option.
  • The financial aid system works best when family income is relatively steady.  But on the low end, it’s often volatile. Adjustments can be made, but they lag, and students need money when they need it.
  • Low-end hourly jobs often require remarkable flexibility from the people who hold them.  Inconsistent hours -- and numbers of hours -- wreak havoc with the best-laid plans.  
  • A student who’s struggling to keep her grades up while attending full-time and working two jobs might decide to drop a class or two. If she does, she stands to lose so much aid (especially through Pell) that she’s essentially penalized for being poor.  
  • Tuition is only one part of total cost, and at community colleges, it’s a relatively small part.  
  • The more complicated the aid -- the more strings attached, the more hoops to jump through -- the less effective it is in encouraging completion.  The best aid is cash.
  • Students are more loan-averse than they should be.  As she puts it, “there is reason to think that until prices are reduced students from low-income families might be more successful in college if they were willing or able to borrow more.”  (p. 94)
  • Food insecurity is scandalously common.  Six percent of the students in their sample reported recently going without food for an entire day due to money.  (p. 128)  K-12 has subsidized or free lunches, but with rare exceptions, higher ed doesn’t.  Students who are hungry have a harder time staying focused.
  • Much of the tuition increase of the past two decades comes from public disinvestment. Where tuition was once a minority of operating funds, it’s now usually the lion’s share.  In that sense, “price” is rising much more quickly than “cost.”

Goldrick-Rab leaves out a few. For instance:

  • The way that many colleges calculate Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) counts a “drop” as a “fail.” To maintain SAP (and therefore aid eligibility) a student has to complete ⅔ of credits attempted. A “withdraw” is not a “complete.” A student could lose SAP with a GPA of 4.0, if that 4.0 comes with enough withdrawals. When students have outside jobs with fluid hours from week to week, they sometimes have to drop classes due to work conflicts. Those drops could imperil their aid, even if they keep their grades up in everything else.
  • “Expected family contributions” effectively assume that divorced parents are amicable and collaborative.  That is an implausibly optimistic assumption at scale.
  • Low-income students often have older and less reliable cars.  Car repairs can be devastatingly expensive.  Unreliable transportation can manifest in spotty attendance, with academic consequences.  Student needs money to get car fixed; student works more hours; academic performance suffers.  

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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