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On Tuesday I finally got to meet Sara Goldrick-Rab in person. She gave a talk from her book Paying the Price at Raritan Valley Community College. After the talk, I pointed out the sign designating it the “Steve Forbes Reading Room.” Yes, that Steve Forbes.  He didn’t attend, though.) The focus was community college affordability, focusing first on a longitudinal study she had done with the Wisconsin Hope Lab and later in conversation with the RVCC students.

I’ve been reading her stuff for years, and we’ve corresponded a bit, but it was the first time we actually met. (I even did a review of Paying the Price last year.) We chatted a bit before and after her talk, but for publication, I’ll focus on her public presentation. Some highlights:

  • For many students, college is about repaying their families, not just themselves. (This has implications for financial aid, below.)
  • The room had about 50 students from what I think were two classes, along with a few who were there of their own volition. Early on, she asked for a show of hands: “How many of you have no trouble paying for college?” No hands went up.
  • Follow-up: “Show of hands: how many of you have a work-study job?” One student. She made the point that the Federal work-study allocation is based in part on the age of the school. Amherst College has all the work-study it could possibly use, but community colleges routinely run short.
  • 40% of college students work full-time. That’s much less true at the colleges and universities that most policymakers attended.
  • FAFSA asks what you have, but doesn’t ask what you owe.  
  • Expected Family Contributions (EFC) can’t be negative; if the formula gives a negative number, it’s cut off at zero. That means a student may receive less aid than she actually needs.
  • 24 percent of students are food-insecure, meaning they routinely skip meals because they can’t afford to eat.
  • 16 percent of students are rent-insecure, meaning they’re intermittently homeless. Sometimes they escape that temporarily by acceding to living arrangements that bring serious issues of their own.
  •  “In these times, hope is a strategy.”  
  • 33 percent of students feel obligated to support their parents financially. There’s no Pell grant to fix Mom’s car, even if she needs it to get to the job that covers her EFC.
  • When she asked the students what surprised them the most about paying for college, one student volunteered that it was the cost of books that they never wind up having to read. That’s an element of the OER discussion that sometimes gets missed. As much as students hate paying, say, $200 for a textbook, they hate even more paying $200 for a textbook that ends up not mattering. Faculty have an obvious role to play here.
  • One student, who self-identified as a veteran, lamented that employers get a financial reward for hiring veterans, but not for hiring current students. Goldrick-Rab noted that we talk a lot about the jobs students get after graduation, but very little about the jobs they get before graduation. Several students volunteered tales of scheduling dilemmas they’ve faced when rapidly-shifting work hours crashed into class times. It struck me that this was exactly the sort of thing that work-study was supposed to solve, but the need and the jobs don’t match.
  • Despite increasing numbers of students who are parents, the number of community colleges with subsidized childcare is decreasing.  

As depressing as some of the numbers were, though, the whole thing felt hopeful. The students were engaged, and some of them seemed grateful that their reality was being described.  And there’s something encouraging about seeing people tell recognizable truth. That’s social science at its very best. I don’t know what Steve Forbes would have thought of it, but I considered it time well spent.

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