6 min read
Sara's title: Paying the price: college costs, financial aid and the betrayal of the american dream. Her slides are on Prezi.
Sara noted that everything she did was grounded in student needs - her book is about college from the student perspective.
Chloe Johnson was an 18 year old at community college. She saw college as "what you do" - you can't get a decent job if you can't. College is normalised, just the next step.
Nima (at the same college) wanted to earn more to help her family - seeing it as a repayment of their support. Family is a big part of what drives young people to higher education. Many students see their study as being about the family they grew up in.
74% of 9th graders from low-income families expect to attend college. An expectation - not an aspiration. And even though we know many will not graduate high-school. But only one in two of this group of students will ever make it to college. Of those who do go only 2 in 5 will get a degree of any kind within 6 years.
Yet we spend about $200 billion/year on financial aid - an intervention that is supposed to ensure that prices are not a block. But many issues are not financial, they are problems in comprehending and understanding the system.
Financial aid is not money. It is a policy that is designed to deliver money.
Sara's study of 3,000 college students in recipient of the Pell grant was designed to find out how and why financial aid is not working. This was qualitative research - aiming to understand a wider part of student lives than just the college experience. This was primary data - linked directly to lived experience.
1,000 of the 3,000 students agreed to speak - but the project could only handle 50. These 50 were interviewed regularly over 6 years - no matter what happened in their lives. The interviews were largely unstructured ("how's it going?" with follow-ups based on expressed student affect.
There is an unconsidered assumption that Pell recipients are "OK". But Pell does not cover the cost of college. More people now need the Pell grant, and more people are entitled to it. The costs rose during the recession as more people became eligible - this was linked to wider conversations around how hard students were working (how much benefit the state got from these payments in terms of learning gain).
The value of the Pell grant has dramatically declined - only a third of the full cost of college is covered. Students do not know about this decline in advance.
Chloe's mum makes $25k a year - her "expected family contribution" was $2.5k. But her mum could not pay this. Chloe sold her horse to cover this gap.
Her college charged $15k a year (including $3k in tuition). Grant support only offered her just under $3k. The funds were oversubscribed, she got a partial grant. She had to come up with the remainder herself.
This is not unusual. These *actual* costs are very similar to the national average.
Many students contribute to their family - this contribution is lost when students go to college (so students still try to support families whilst at college - this is ignored in support calculations.)
Living costs are also underestimated. Only 13% of us students live on college - costs for those students renting outside college are basically made up. For example a college in New York decided that living costs have gone down since 2012 (in actuality rent has risen by three times inflation in this area).
Books are a sizable fraction of total costs - the estimate is very often inaccurate (as with most of these estimates... housing, food, travel....)
Prices increase over time (from year to year) - institutional grants are removed after year 1 - students are not aware that they need to refile FAFSA applications. Students face issues in meeting academic requirements - these vary from school to school.
No Pell student should need to take a loan, but 77% of university students do (25% of community college students. Nearly three quarters of all students work during college - this is not an effective strategy as work does not pay and makes it very difficult to attend classes. To even get 20hrs of work, students may hold three jobs.
Work-study is not accurately allocated based on need.
Two-thirds of students that are not working are looking for work. It can be inferred that students want to work, but cannot.
Nearly a quarter of students were food-insecure. Many interviewees had not eaten for a number of days.
16% of students have trouble paying rent on time. In some studies 13% of students are homeless.
The erosion of a social safety net has led to more students supporting families - students use loans they are eligible for to support families (this was 33% in the first year of the study and rose over time).
Of the 3,000 students in the study 50% did not complete degrees (42% at community college). More than 2 in 5 have no degree, just debt. 66% borrowed for the first year of college but never got a credential.
Chloe worked two jobs to cover her college price. Her grades sank (as she was forced to take enough classes to finish in four years). She applied for a loan, but it came too late. At that point her grades had dropped such that she was placed on academic probation. She didn't know what this meant and assumed that she had been dismissed. She is now in the Navy, and hopes one day to return to study.
Even where some students were offered more money this had little effect - financial aid does a bad job of delivering money to students. Rules, requirements, exclusions and surprises abound (for example when parents get a job after a long period of employment, aid drops)- and it is just plain slow.
College readiness must be matched with reasonable college prices. Today education is too risky - and puts families off education over multiple generations.
What we need to do is address non-tuition costs, making estimates accurate, driving down book and food costs (some colleges feed all students). We should fix the work-study programme, and raise the minimum wage... and talk to local employers about the benefits of having their employees finish collge.
And we need a more inclusive, less judgemental system than Pell. Like all programmes for the poor in this country it is under resourced. Making more people beneficiaries would help do this. Undocumented students are one in four of recipients.
Sara has been calling for "the first degree for free" - a fully funded associate degree. The needs of students should be central to the way colleges work. Diverse schools delivering high quality tuition should be free .
Sara created the FAST FUND to support students immediately via an emergency aid programme, delivered via faculty. Proceeds from her book "Paying the Price" support this. This is not the solution, but this is something we can do now - and we can show that it can be done.