Interview: Sara Goldrick-Rab on moving forward with college affordability

Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Iowa City Public Library — Monday, Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.

Sara Goldrick-Rab -- photo courtesy of Goldrick-Rab
Sara Goldrick-Rab — photo courtesy of Goldrick-Rab

Scholar-activist Sara Goldrick-Rab spent years following students struggling to pay for college — and sometimes failing, leaving with no degree and overwhelming debt. In talks on Monday, Goldrick-Rab will discuss college costs, student debt and solutions to move the country forward.

Goldrick-Rab is a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and founder of Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a research laboratory aimed at reducing the cost of college education. She will speak at the Iowa City Public Library on Monday, Feb. 13 at 7 p.m. about her research and writings on college affordability, including her recent book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. The event is part of a year-long series on the state of public higher education sponsored by a number of University of Iowa entities, including the Obermann Center and Public Policy Center.

A preliminary talk, “Making College Affordable: Adventures in Scholar-Activism,” will be held earlier that day at 2 p.m at the University of Iowa Seashore Hall (Room W113). Both events are free and open to the public.

The talks key in on a topic that has entered conversations, both during presidential candidate’s stump speeches and at family dinner tables. In the run-up to Monday’s events, Goldrick-Rab took some time to talk to Little Village:

College affordability and student debt came up during the presidential election, especially on the Democratic side, in a way that I hadn’t really seen in the past. What bearing does the outcome of the election have on the college affordability discussion?

There is a reason that we were seeing more discussion than we have in the past. I think it’s really, really clear that people are struggling to pay for college in ways they haven’t in the past. And it’s a lot more people that are being affected. We’ve always known that people with very little money have struggled to pay for college, but now we really do have a middle class that also can’t really make ends meet.

Obviously, the election was disappointing in the sense that we had one party that was offering real, concrete plans to address these issues and to find ways to make college substantially more affordable. And we had another party that was talking about it a little bit, but mainly talking about college prices as a function of bad practices of institutions.

The Republican diagnosis of the problem seems to be that colleges and universities, and particularly public college and universities, are bad actors. That they are just charging everything they can and ripping off families. The Democratic diagnosis of the problem is pretty different. It is that the biggest problem we have is that states are not supporting higher education in the way they have in the past and that that is why the prices have risen in the public sector.

So, the Republicans want to crack down on institutions and the Democrats want to bring back public investment. Now, the data supports the Democrats, to be honest. The data suggests that the issue of bad practices by institutions is an issue, but it is almost exclusively an issue at private colleges, more particularly for-profit colleges. That’s not where most people go to school.

So, what we are likely to see now, based on the elections, are these efforts to try to tell institutions what to do with their prices without giving them resources. In the public sector, that’s likely not going to look very good. That’s likely to lead to schools where most people go to college having very little money with which to serve them and provide them a high-quality education. It’s likely to lead to broad dissatisfaction with public education, which will lead to a backlash, or exacerbate what is already a backlash, against those schools. Most concerning, it will increase inequality. Schools with the people with the most need, and the schools with the people with the least money to pay for school, will also have the least resources, and those are the community colleges.

This is not a good moment, suffice to say, for families concerned about college affordability at the federal level.


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It’s also a concern because [earlier this week] the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was confirmed. I’ve read all of her responses to questions and it’s not clear that she understands the problem. In fact, it’s really clear she doesn’t understand the problem nor does she have any plans to address these challenges.

Students gather to oppose the confirmation of Betsy Devos as the secretary of education on the Iowa City Pentacrest, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. -- photo by Zak Neumann
Students gather to oppose the confirmation of Betsy Devos as the secretary of education on the Iowa City Pentacrest, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

Much of the political discussion seems centered on student debt, but you mentioned in your book that, “Student debt should not be at the center of the debate. Debt is the symptom, not the disease – the real problem is that college is not affordable.” How do you think the conversation can be shifted from one about debt to one about affordability?

I’ve been very frustrated with this. If you were really aimed at just eliminating debt, one possibility is that you go too far. I think it would make a lot of sense for public colleges and universities, much like public high schools, to not charge tuition. Then we can have a very simple and clear system of pricing for tuition. Nobody has to guess at what the price will be.

The question then is how do you pay for the other stuff — books and supplies and all those things. For a person from a low income family, they should continue to get subsidies like they do in high school to help cover their cost of housing and food. For example, we need to fix the rules that affect whether or not they can get food stamps, that affect whether or not they can get subsidized housing while they are in college. They could get those things supported and not need to borrow to pay for those things.

On the other hand, a child of mine, the child of a professor, should not be able to get those housing programs, those food support programs. My child, if I don’t pay for their rent while they are in school, could quite reasonably borrow some money to pay their rent. It’s a good investment for them that they will get returns on later.

Under a model like I’m describing, more people would go to college, because the tuition would be free, and the people who would have debt would be the people who would realistically be able to pay that back. It would be debt for their living costs, not debt for their basic schooling.

If we flip that and instead we say debt is the enemy, then we might eliminate the debt even for my kid. It’s not that that’s wrong to do. That’s very nice. But it’s also not changing the outcomes for my kid. It’s not going to change whether or not my kid finishes college. It’s not going to change whether or not my kid enters the rest of their life with enough money to go forward. In some sense, it’s money wasted.

The $100,000 of debt that people talk about, it’s sad when it happens because people who have it feel like they are underwater. But it’s not a policy problem. They made a really bad choice to go to a way-to-expensive institution, usually a pretty elite institution. They overpaid. But they got a degree and they will manage to pay it off.

What’s a matter of public policy is what’s happening to millions of people across the country: They can’t pay off their debt because they didn’t finish college in the first place. They have a lot of debt. They have $5,000-$6,000 in debt, but it’s too much because they never got the degree. That’s the public policy problem and it’s not sexy and it’s not getting the attention. The reason they have no degree and they have $5,000 in debt is because the price was too high for them.

I’m for a strategy that creates more equality and that also is efficient with the dollars that we have.

Goldrick-Rab's 'Paying the Price' was published in 2016 by The University of Chicago Press.
Goldrick-Rab’s ‘Paying the Price’ was published in 2016 by The University of Chicago Press.

In your book, you highlight the journeys of six specific students, as well as occasionally bringing in stories from other students you interviewed. What to you was the importance of having those personal stories in there as well as all of the data?

From a scientific standpoint, this was a mixed methods study. I prioritized many kinds of data. Some data comes from student records — their grades, their financial aid forms, their transcripts. Another type of data comes from surveys. A third type of data was obtained through interviews.

Sometimes we value some of those types more than others. You often hear stories about student debt that are mainly just from the numbers. They are not the narrative. I think that’s a problem. From a scientific standpoint, we only know about the things that we measure when we use quantitative data.

If I was trying to get a handle on the question, “Are students okay when they are paying high prices for college?” — if I look at the standard data that a college would have, I come away thinking they are okay, because they stay enrolled. The problem is that quantitative data contains no measures, normally, of whether students have housing, or whether they eat regularly. Colleges don’t normally ask those questions.

When we were talking to students, they told us about those issues. And it was because they told us, that we then learned to start surveying students about it. So then my quantitative data finally had those things in it and that helped me to be able to answer the question better. Now I can say, “No, they are not okay.”

A second part is that if you want to help people understand that they need to solve the problem, or if you want to help them find ways to do it, it’s often the case, especially for policymakers, that people’s voices matter more than numbers.

The six people I feature, they are not just six people we met on the street. These are six people who were drawn from thousands of people in a sampling strategy. They represent many more people. I can tell you that for every one of those six people, I could have chosen another person and they would have had a similar story.

What they accomplish through the book is they help you really see what it looks like to be a student paying too high a price for college. I am so grateful to those people in the book who were able to help us get a window into these issues by revealing the details of their lives. It is one of the things that readers most connected with.

The students involved in your surveys and interviews entered right as the Great Recession hit. Do you think that had a significant impact on the results? In other words, would there be similar outcomes today or does the slightly improved economy make the issue slightly less dire?

There have been stories written over time about the children of the Great Depression, and it’s clear that the Depression had, for decades, lasting influences on people. And it is possible that this Great Recession was a fundamentally different time. But, as a scientist, the way I approach that question is to ask myself, “If I do the study again, and I do it under better conditions, does it look the same?”

I started another study in 2012, so I have another study in the field right now of a very similar group of students in the exact same state. And it does look like things are very much the same.

I would say, though, that this isn’t a much better economy. There are some markers of the economy improving. But these students, they don’t have much education when they begin college, they are high school-educated people. Life has not gotten much better for those people over time.

If these students had gone to college during the Bill Clinton presidency in the mid-’90s, would things have looked different? Yes. And I try to talk about that in the book … I wanted people to understand how very different the prices were and how very different the labor market was.

If the economy improves dramatically in the next couple of decades, will students be able to afford these prices more? Maybe. But I’m also concerned that the prices will be much higher.

It’s not just that the labor market is so week, it’s that the price is so high. This is sort of the new reality.

The Iowa Capitol shown on the opening day of the Iowa Legislature, Jan. 9, 2017. -- photo by Lauren Shotwell
The Iowa Capitol shown on the opening day of the Iowa Legislature, Jan. 9, 2017. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

Some states have continued to cut funding to public higher education. In Iowa, for example, the Iowa Legislature recently cut mid-year budgets for both public universities and community colleges. This seemed to some to be a disconnect from proposals put forward almost simultaneously in the governor’s Condition of the State address in which Gov. Terry Branstad set forward a goal that 70 percent of the Iowa workforce have education beyond high school by 2025. But this isn’t really unusual. How do you navigate this seeming disconnect?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to them as a disconnect. They are thinking of it differently. Having lived a long time in Wisconsin, I’m very familiar with Iowa, and I know you all are familiar with Wisconsin. We have seen the same thing.

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, has been a little more overt about it. His solution, his way of thinking of how the workforce is going to get educated, is through the private sector. He believes that the way to increase the number of workers who have the skills they need is to have them go to private institutions.

He proclaimed Wisconsin open for business when it came to for-profit schools. He has pushed for the deregulation of for-profit schools — much the way that I anticipate Besty DeVos will. He doesn’t see a disconnect between saying we need more people to have skills and slashing the public sector.

I can guarantee you that if Iowa slashes its community colleges and its public universities, that it is creating opportunities for the private sector to take advantage of students. The University of Iowa is definitely going to be facing increased competition just like everybody else. And not to good effect.

It’s not that people are saying, “Don’t go to school.” They are saying, “The private schools can give you everything you need.” And that is exactly what the fight over Besty DeVos was about. It was about the future of public education. That discussion and those mid-year cuts are over exactly the same thing.

Some of the solutions that you put forward in the book are smaller, incremental changes, but some of them would be a pretty significant shift, including the proposal that a first degree at any public college or university should be free. Looking at the political conversation right now, how does the American public work towards this goal?

First, San Francisco just announced that community college will be free to anybody who lives in San Francisco. That’s massive. We also just watched the governor of New York announce that he intends to make both two-year and four-year colleges in the public sector free, at least for a subset of students.

The way to pursue policies like these it to start right now at the local level. We did have a champion at the federal level in President Obama. We still have champions at the federal level in people like Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia. There is actually a substantial base of support for some real changes.

But, we also know realistically that the Department of Education is not going to be friendly to this at the federal level. It’s extremely important that, if you live in a state that isn’t going to support this, you can still support efforts in other states. In many cases, that’s how real changes come about in this country.

We got community colleges around this country because local communities said they needed something beyond high school. I think the way that we get free community college and free first degrees will be very similar.

Minnesota has an appetite for this sort of policy change. I see no reason, if there are people in Iowa who want this kind of change, that they shouldn’t help Minnesota. This is a really good way to promote changes in their own state.

These things happen through what we call in academia policy diffusion. Policy diffusion is when ideas catch on. You might not have a legislature that is currently receptive to an idea. But they do look at each other. The do look at their peers. They do notice what others are doing, and what others get pressed for.

It’s creating some spillover right now, across the nation, where governors and mayors are saying, “We’re going to do this.” San Francisco didn’t wait for the governor of California. Profound, local changes are likely, given the changes at the federal level, to be leading the way.

Iowa City Public Library
Goldrick-Rab will speak at the Iowa City Public Library on Monday, Feb. 13. — photo by Randy Stern

What do you hope that people who attend your talk next week come away with? What message do you hope they walk away with?

When people attend my talks, there are a couple of things that I’m trying to help them understand. The first is to really understand what I call the new economics of college, what that really means to students. There are a lot of people in my audiences who attended college a while ago — 20, 30 years ago. This new reality looks really different from what they went through. Part of my job is to help them, with the help of the students’ voices, to understand how the new economics have changed the college experience. I also want them to understand things like why working your way through college doesn’t work any more.

I want them to also think about the consequences. That’s the second part. What does it look like to try to get through college these days? Why is it that so many students don’t make it? I want them to understand that this issue of not finishing a degree is such a serious issue, and the role that debt plays in that issue.

Third part is, I want them to come away with the sense that they can do something about it. This book is a hard read, some people say, but it does give you strategies for doing better. Hope is a strategy. I’m very concerned about the lack of optimism out there right now. I actually think these students are hopeful in so many ways. I think that they know that this is so important, that we have to do better. And we can do better. There are things that are big and small that we can do. The most important thing is that we keep doing it. That we not give up on building a better system.

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