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Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab is a sociology professor at Temple University and founder of the Hope Center for College Community and Justice. She is also the author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. Her work centers on improving access to higher education and she recently shared her insights on the challenges of college costs faced by today’s students.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length

In your book, you reveal that the stereotypical image of the irresponsible, partying college student is not the reality. What’s a more accurate example?

So I recently had a student at Temple who had enrolled for the third time. He really enjoyed school and wanted to be there, but discovered that even while working and taking out loans, he still couldn’t afford to attend. His mother was diagnosed with cancer, so he was taking care of her in addition to his work and school responsibilities. And research shows that his case is not unusual. Today’s students are having to take care or parents, relatives, siblings, their children or even other people’s children while juggling college. This creates both time and financial pressures that make it difficult to complete a degree. 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was designed to determine the aid eligibility of students and reserve money for those who can demonstrate the most need. Why do you say that this model needs to be eliminated? 

I believe that the FAFSA is the enemy of good equitable policy and doesn’t do a good job of determining a student’s true financial need. I had a student last semester who according to FAFSA doesn’t demonstrate need because his parents have the money to pay for college. But the FAFSA doesn’t take into account that his parents don’t speak to him after he came out as gay so he can’t pay for college without financial aid. There are unintended consequences to the assumption that we will promote equity by rationing money using an application. The solution is making public colleges and universities accessible to everyone like we do for high school, and operating under the assumption that everyone needs financial help. And for the handful that don’t, it’s worth paying for them if it means meeting everyone else’s needs.

What are some of the problems inherent in financial aid and student loans?

Financial aid does a bad job of distributing money, and student loans are punitive in the way that they are structured in that they are expected to be repaid at exactly the wrong moment. Graduates don’t appreciate the returns of college until a decade after graduation, but loans are due right away and the tiny grace period needs to be longer if we’re going to have this system. 

I was fascinated by what you describe as miscalculations in financial aid packages. Why is it important to understand these in the conversation of college affordability? 

Because it helps us understand that the real price of attending college is higher than what colleges care to admit. For instance, something like housing costs for community college students isn’t considered when calculating the cost of attendance just because community colleges don’t have residence halls. This leads to lower financial aid packages and a miscalculation in what it really costs to enroll.  

 What are your immediate solutions for solving the problem?

One of the things we can do right away is improve how colleges estimate living expenses. Students need to know what it’s going to cost to make better-informed decisions on the loans they’re going to take out. We should change expected family contribution to estimated family contribution. We can provide better clarity and transparency on how award letters are done. States can help by providing their institutions with budgets that cover two years, because if the colleges know their own finances then they can give more accurate numbers to students on what it will cost them to attend.

Students that work hard to earn an outside scholarship often find that this award lowers their financial aid package, meaning they don’t get to appreciate the full benefit of the scholarship. How can we change this?

So this idea of “displacement” where a scholarship award displaces a work-study, university grant, or student loan offer in their financial aid package has been a point of frustration for charitable organizations such as the Gates Foundation for many years. It’s based on the assumption that students don’t need any more money than what is calculated by FAFSA, and if they do then they’re just bad spenders. This is just wrong and in Maryland, an organization called Central Scholarship worked with state lawmakers to pass legislation forbidding public institutions from using scholarship dollars to displace other contributions. Perhaps they felt they couldn’t extend the law to include private institutions, and I think that’s too bad as the state does give those colleges money also. 

What do you think about the proposed California Bill AB 943, which would allow community colleges to use up to $25,000 in support of emergency student aid? 

Most students will run into financial trouble at some point when obtaining their degree, but few have wealthy families to turn to for help. Emergency assistance like the one proposed plays two roles: it helps cover unexpected expenses that might arise, and it also conveys to the student that someone cares. This assistance helps alleviate the trauma associated with something like a sudden $300 bill that might otherwise stop the student from graduating on time. 

What role does philanthropy play when it comes to college affordability?  

Right now we’re seeing philanthropy help feed college students who face food insecurity. Also, we wouldn’t have a good understanding of the number of homeless students were it not for philanthropic organizations conducting surveys. This type of research is something we would’ve never been able to do if we had to wait for government or university funding.  So whether it’s a food pantry, or providing research funding, or supporting legislation advocacy work philanthropy is very worthwhile. 

What has changed since you published your book in 2016? Where is there hope or progress for students? 

I think there’s a lot more public awareness. The number of media pieces elevating student stories, in particular on the issues of student hunger and homelessness, has grown tremendously. The number of colleges saying they want to put programming in place to help has grown. There’s more policy attention at the state level – we have bills pending all over the country and that’s incredible. I’m also delighted to see growth in the number of researchers digging into these issues, and we’re going to learn a lot more as a result of their efforts. 


Author: Miguel León is a Program Officer at the Michelson 20MM Foundation. His work focuses on student access and success as well as policy, government relations, and external affairs.

Michelson 20MM and its initiatives are made possible by the generous support of Dr. Gary K. Michelson, M.D. and his wife, Alya Michelson.