Why college students are "paying the price" for their education

Sure 70% of students have jobs throughout college, but 25% also report having gone without meals in the last month

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 29, 2019 2:31PM (EDT)


In the midst of this spring's frenzy over well-heeled parents allegedly buying their way into exclusive universities, a quieter revelation about the real life of American college students provoked much less attention. A study from Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice revealed that "45 percent of student respondents from over one hundred institutions said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days." For an astonishing number of students, college is not about parties and privilege. It's about debt, sleep deprivation and hunger.

The Hope Center's founder, Sara Goldrick-Rab, is also the author of 2017's "Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream," a sobering but ultimately hopeful view of how we got here, and how we might dig out. As the parent of one kid in college and another in high school, I was eager to talk to Goldrick-Rab recently about loans, Pell grants and the unique challenges that Gen Z face.

I write a lot about higher ed. The trolls are always interested in telling me that I'm wrong and that if you just work hard and had just saved your money, this would have not been a problem.

It's funny, most researchers want people to tell them that itself resonates. But given what I write about, I'm actually waiting for the day someone tells me "You're totally wrong." The only people who tell me I'm wrong are internet trolls. All other people are like, "This is so bad." I'm just honestly heartbroken by it. I'm waiting to go to a college campus and have them tell me, "We don't have any homeless students; you're just totally off base." That's just never happened to me and I go to campuses every single week. It's crazy.

There was so much about this book that surprised me. One of the things that surprised me the most is that you do not come down entirely against loans and debt. You explain that there is sometimes a very compelling reason for taking out these loans.

Here's my bottom line on those. You have to see the larger picture. What I'm trying to help people do is see it. The full picture is that there are a large number of folks who don't want the government to offer these loans to students because they don't believe it's worthwhile. They don't think these students are good investments.

We're talking about investing in people whose odds of retainment are not high. But the reason we're giving them the money is so that they can get stronger, so they can get an education.

A normal financial product invests in somebody with a high probability of repayment. That's what a normal financial product does. Education loans are not financial products; they are educational policies. So my big worry is that these critics will help drive a movement to take federal student loans out of the Department of Ed and put them in the Department of Treasury. The Treasury will look at them like regular financial products. We will begin to see that African-Americans in particular, but lots of other folks too, cut off from federal loans.

That, to be honest, is my hesitation about Elizabeth Warren's policies. I am very impressed and happy with what she is doing, but I've worried for the longest time that her lens of viewing these things like standard financial products because she wants protections around them, will have adverse consequences. We even saw with President Obama, start to restrict access to Plus loans.

Rachael [Fishman] at the New America Foundation says they are terrible, they are predatory. Yeah, but we haven't offered an alternative.

They are terrible, they are predatory. Last year when we were getting all of our offers and parent Plus packages, it would give me stomach pain. Your responsibility as a parent could be $70,000 in loans, per year.

It's egregious. I'm 100 percent on board that it's egregious. But the political economy of financial aid is what we have to pay attention to. All good policy in this country is inherently political. The fact is, it is so easy to the Republicans to take those critiques for the Plus loan programs and cut the program without logistics.  

A very important point that definitely gave me sticker shock is that tuition is not a cost of college. You hear the tuition and you think, "Okay, I got it." And that is not the number. That is not even close to it, and that is where these problems come, for a lot of students.

It's part of it. I think that the good news is that in the last several years there has been a lot more attention paid to the fact that the tuition is a fraction of the total cost, at least in a public sector. People at private colleges will say that it is not true, and the reason is because at private colleges the tuition is so much bigger than anything else.

People say that food and housing need to become part of [financial aid]. It already is. The other costs of attendance, things like food and housing and healthcare. There already is a cost of attendance by federal law. Financial aid is supposed to cover those things. The problem is that financial aid falls so short.

It's not that we've never noticed these things before. They were always in the federal calculation. People are basically getting stuck because the purchasing power of the financial aid is down so far. [Students] have to pay the tuition first. It's not like they are going, "Hmm... should I pay rent or should I pay tuition?" You have to pay the tuition, or you can't be in the school. So your financial aid goes first to tuition, and there is nothing left over.

And you have to maintain a certain amount of hours and credits.

It's not actually a choice. I see, "Tuition or food?" No, if you want to be a student, it's tuition. The story is that there's tuition and there's no money left for food after paying tuition. Not because tuition is so insanely high at the publics but because financial aid is so insanely low. Which is why it makes it so hard to solve. It's why people are wrong to say, "Those greedy colleges just need to lower their tuition."

The public narrative, because it is interesting and sexier and more celebrity-studded, tends to focus more on the story of families that are paying half a million dollars to get their kid into an Ivy. The reality is that more than half of all college students are working.

70 percent.

College life is not about that number of people who are paying half a million dollars to get into the Ivy League school. We do know that exponentially more families are applying the these extremely elite, extremely expensive schools. But the reality for most people is the public colleges.

75 percent are in the public sector. 75 percent. That is enormous, and yet all of the talk is about all the elite private colleges. Did you see that they're going to make a television show about the admissions scandal? What is killing me about that is it's going to further the idea in peoples' heads that this is what is actually happening in higher ed. That is totally an anomaly. It is not a story of American higher education right now, at all.

So what can we do about that? If you were to distill what you think is one of the biggest misconceptions around higher ed right now in our country, what would you say?

I think the biggest misconception is that we think that the problem is we essentially have lazy and unmotivated students in greedy colleges. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today's students are receiving less support than almost any prior generation of college students. They're working more as a result. And the colleges are functioning with less support than they've ever had.

The outcomes we are seeing, frankly, is that we get what we've paid for. We get what we pay for, that's the lesson here. If taxpayers don't want to fund higher ed together, then they have to pay higher tuition individually. The answer is the opposite. You pay together, so that you don't pay tuition individually and that's what we do with K-12 schools. Now, we pay in other ways. We pay taxes, we buy houses in nice neighborhoods next to lovely schools. I'm not saying we don't. But if people want to go back to the days when the state university cost $300 a year, we have to change the amount of taxes that we pay and where the tax money goes. The revenue is not going to higher ed now.

If you look at the numbers, black men are not making progress in getting into higher education. And when they get there they have these high drop out rates and seemingly high rates of homelessness. Instead of investing in their higher education, we are investing in prisons which lock them up. There's really a story here about the last 50 years. As college became a place that was more acceptable to regular people, the government pulled back on the funding for it.

It really speaks volumes. You can take that from a gender perspective too. We're putting in fewer dollars at the government level to help take care of educating women in college than we did when college was about men. That's the trend. It has to reverse. It's partly at the federal level but to be honest a lot has to do with the states.

I do something in the book that I have never seen anybody else talk about, which is that the states never really bought into Pell program.

You make the case that here's the problem and here's where we need to be looking at as parents and also as citizens.

If the states would put back in the money they took out of higher ed, we would be in a vastly different situation than we are in right now. I did a little poll on Twitter the other day to ask how many people know that states cut nine billion dollars from higher ed in the last ten years alone. States cut tax, not Congress. The states are putting in 25 percent less support for students than they did thirty years ago. We're acting like these students are pampered and privileged, but that doesn't make any sense.

The thing that's so galling, so insulting and just so hurtful is when you're in the trenches as you are, you see these families kids working so hard and up against so much, who are then are being penalized if they can't graduate. Then this debt comes down on them. It's really just this absolutely vicious, punitive game.

It is. it's very punitive. Tomorrow I'm giving my first ever TED Talk. I'm very excited about it. I'm opening with a conversation I overheard between a current student and a prospective student. The advice that he gave them was, "Prepared to be punished." Being punished for pursuing an education. It is not going to be okay. Think about that. What did we just do?

There are students who think that they should get married. There are students who think they should have a baby. That's the craziest thing in the world; they clearly don't understand how much a baby costs. It is unconscionable how hard we have made this to figure out.

I teach an entire course called "Why care about college?" I'm really trying to help think about what they're paying and how to make it worth it. They come to me asking for advice, and when I'm listening to what they are doing, they are already doing everything that they can do. They are not doing stupid things; they aren't wasting money. Their parents didn't overlook any resource. They've done everything they can do. There really isn't anything left to do. The only thing you can do is work longer hours, which is why they're falling sleep in class.

I actually now tend to go over and sit down next to one of those sleeping students towards the end of class and ask them if they are okay. One of those sleeping students is one of those people I'm featuring in the TED Talk. He's not okay. His mom is undergoing chemo. He's involved in something like that while also working, while going to school. Why are we writing these students off? Most people would have dropped out of college for stuff like this. They're amazing. I continue to be awed by them, and it's so frustrating to open a paper and see them completely castigated.

The odds are stacked so much higher now. And then there's the idea, as you point out, that you can just go to community college and everything will be fixed. Whatever you think community college is, it's not a free ride.

But there are ways and things that we can do to get around this and there are things that we can do as active, engaged citizens.

I agree, and the good news is that there really are candidates right now who if elected I think could honestly make a big change. I think the question is whether people are going to understand that saving for college and lamenting college prices is not enough. We have to vote. That's the job, that's it. It is never going to be enough to just say those things.

And I don't think anyone is going to double the Pell grant. I don't think it's possible. I wish it was but I don't think it's a viable strategy, so when I hear candidates saying that's what they're going to do, it really disturbs me. We've said that forever. I don't think anyone is going to pour a lot of grant money into paying for students living expenses since they are so skeptical of those students. I think we have to address their living expenses in other ways.

There are practical small steps that en mass make a huge difference and can really change the game for the next generation of students. We need them in the workforce. We need them to educated.

We need them healthy, by the way. That's the other part of this.

I had a meeting the America Cancer Society about that. I can't believe that that's the world we are in. We have these people enduring these challenges in college going through food insecurity. That has serious implications that we are all going to see later. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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