Goldrick-Rab: Interest In Higher Education Expands, But Costs Block Many From Going To School

Apr 14, 2017

More people want to pursue higher education now in the United States, and more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds want to go to college or university. Even though a desire to achieve higher education is greater, it has also created enormous problems, according to Temple University education and sociology professor Sara Goldrick-Rab.

“Despite these big changes in the number of people who go to college and who goes, we've had the same financing system for higher education since about the 1960s,” Goldrick-Rab told KGOU’s World Views.

In many states, appropriations for higher education are dwindling, either because funding is short or because state dollars are spread among public and private institutions.

“The prices are now so high that paying for it yourself is becoming incredibly difficult,” Goldrick-Rab said. “So we're seeing people starting college and not finishing it, but they leave with debt.”

Sara Goldrick-Rab has authored many books, including the Amazon best-seller, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. She says her mission is “to identify novel approaches to making higher education the accessible and affordable place that families want and need it to be.”

Goldrick-Rab says many Americans believe hard work and a strong effort can give people the opportunity to succeed, regardless of family income. But that belief does not hold up if higher education institutions are not properly funded, and the cost of going to college becomes prohibitively expense for low-income students.

“It really ends up being, can you pay for it or not,” Goldrick-Rab said.

International implications

Many colleges and universities have turned to international students to help bring in additional revenue.

“When you don't have money, you go search for money and we have allowed states to charge a higher price for international students,” Goldrick-Rab said.

She says universities and colleges are recruiting international students for the wrong reasons.

“We're not recruiting them because we want our students from the United States to have a global educational experience, to learn from people from other countries, to maybe have some exposure to the challenges that are faced in other parts of the world, to get new perspectives,” Goldrick-Rab said. “We are bringing them in for cash and it's starting to backfire frankly.”

Community colleges are also bringing international students to their campuses. Goldrick-Rab says that by recruiting students from other countries, community colleges are distracting from their mission to serve the local community.

“It's not that we don't want Chinese people here. It's just that the institution had a particular mission and it was important that they had money to focus on it,” Goldrick-Rab said.

She believes this solution is exploitative, and that international students understand why colleges and universities are recruiting them.

“These are all smart people who understand that they're being used for their money and they're being charged a price that is not reasonable,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Now, an increasing number of international students are finding it difficult to make ends meet, and are turning for assistance from food banks and other programs.


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Suzette Grillot: Sarah Goldrick-Rab, welcome to World Views.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: Thanks for having me.

Grillot: It's great to have you here Sara to talk about an issue that we don't often deal with on World Views: Higher education, particularly in the United States. We're going to compare maybe what's going on in the U.S. to what's happening around the world in higher education. But tell us first of all, what are some of the major issues that we face in higher education today, the major obstacle, some of the problems, some of the strengths we have perhaps?

Goldrick-Rab: Well you know one of the biggest things that we're facing today is actually a strength, which is that more people want to go to college than ever before. So historically in the past, you know, college 50 years ago was something that really was only an option for men, for white men, for people who were from families that had a significant amount of money. And over time as educational access in this country has expanded in high schools, it has also expanded when it comes to the 13th and 14th grades as well. And so we see greater interest than we've ever seen including among people from very low income families. So of ninth graders these days from families that have very little money. Almost three-in-four of those ninth graders say that they expect to attend college and while not all of them will finish high school, one in two of them nevertheless, who do finish high school will go on to college. So those are very high rates of enrollment and also not only more people, but also more economic diversity. And the combination of those things more people going to college and more economic diversity and therefore, more financial need among college students, has created challenges especially when it comes to our financing system. So despite those trends over time right despite these big changes in the number of people who go to college and who goes, we've had the same financing system for higher education since about the 1960s.

Grillot: Tell us what that financing system is.

Goldrick-Rab: Well so the model really has two big parts to it and it does work differently for public versus private higher education, although not as different as you might think. So let me first start with the public side because 75 percent of people in college in the United States are in the public sector. So it really is kind of the the main focus. Public colleges and universities receive funding both from the federal government and from their state governments to provide the education itself and from the states, that's called appropriations. What that means is that the state legislature every year decides to provide those schools, those colleges and universities, with some operating money. That money is usually intended for education despite the fact that, increasingly, our universities do more than one thing right. They do education, they also provide service to their communities. They also conduct research. And so there is this sort of direct appropriations to higher education. In addition to that, colleges and universities in the public sector also get money directly through their students and that is student financial aid. And the way that works is that if a student qualifies for financial aid, and that might be a grant or it might be a loan, and the student decides what college they go to, then the money follows the students. So a college can only capture that money if those students on financial aid come there.

Goldrick-Rab: Now in the private sector you might think because of our history of K-12 education, that private schools they're probably not getting direct state funding. But they actually are not in every state. But for example in New York state which has had private colleges for a very long time and holds them in high esteem. They provide direct state support to private colleges and universities under the idea that the state of New York needs them to do well. Also, private colleges, get the same financial aid through their students that the public colleges do. And so what that has meant is that both public and private are working to educate students, they are competing for students and they are increasingly competing for relatively scarce resources. So while we spend more money on higher than we ever have, we also educate more students than we ever have, and therefore on a per student basis we're not getting as much money as we used to. And what that has meant is that more of the bill is being passed to students and their families.

Grillot: So this has significant consequences obviously. Working at a state university myself, we see how the state has funded less and less of our annual budget. I think that's a largely national phenomenon. Legislatures are obviously funding education less. Is there a pretty consistent argument that state legislatures are making regarding funding of higher education?

Goldrick-Rab: They're making a couple of different arguments. Right so one argument is, folks we don't have any money you know and we're faced with some tough choices because you know people aren't doing as well people aren't earning as much. The tax base is not as substantial as it used to be or we're not willing to grow the tax base right so we don't want to charge people more income or sales tax. So we have to give up something. And you know we have more health care expenses than we've ever had before. We have more criminal justice expenses than ever we have ever had before because we're locking people up left and right. We also have a lot of expenses on K-12 education. So sort of under the assumption that something's got to give, it tends to be that higher education is what gives. It's often called the balancing wheel of the budget.

Goldrick-Rab: At the same time though there's still evidence that there is a fair bit of money available. And the question is where it's going. And so some folks are recognizing that it isn't so much that state legislatures don't have money to spend. It's that they're prioritizing different things than we might want them to. So for example, you might think it is most important to ensure that every child has access to a college that provides them a decent education and that that should therefore be in the public sector not because public schools are better per se, but because we control them right, that we have democratic control over public schools and so if we don't like what they're doing we have mechanisms for trying to tell them what to do versus in private schools where we can't. Yet the value that seems to be reflected in many of these states says no. Rather than making sure the public schools have enough money and making that priority number one, instead we're going to prioritize people having choices. And so what we want to do is just give people options. And if a school isn't doing a good job whether it's public or private will, they'll be told by the consumer that they're problematic and they'll improve their quality. And what that means is that even scarce resources like state financial aid is being spread across public and private schools and so the total amount available say in the public sector is less than it would be otherwise. So it has a lot to do with both financial constraints, but also choices and frankly political values.

Grillot: You could extend that even further back in terms of taxing the public to pay for these things, right. So that part of it is just the value of reducing taxes which constrains the amount of resources we have and then doling out that smaller pot or resources in a way that reflects those values.

Goldrick-Rab: And this is a longstanding tension in this country. I mean you know a lot of people believe for example that hard work and great effort should give you the opportunities that you deserve and it shouldn't be about the income of the family you were born into. That's determining whether you get to go to college but saying that in funding that are two very different things.

Goldrick-Rab: And what it means to fund that is for all of us for example to put in a few pennies or even a few dollars so that everybody in our community can actually embrace that American Dream. Instead of doing that though what we're doing all over the country is we're saying oh you can do that. But if you want to go to college by the way you still have to pay for it yourself which is kind of antithetical to the idea then that it's just going to be hard work and effort that determines that it really ends up being can you pay for it or not. And that's because people have increasingly said, “Look college pays off to individuals.” People go to college and they make more money, so why shouldn't they pay for their own college education. And actually if they can't afford it, why don't they just borrow for it. You can pay for it later. Well the problem with that of course is number one the prices are now so high that paying for it yourself is becoming incredibly difficult. So we're seeing people starting college, not finishing it, but they leave with debt.The other thing is it's not as if the wages associated with those college degrees have gotten so much bigger as the prices have gotten bigger that it's easy to pay off the debt. And so this strategy hasn't paid off. And in the meantime, it isn't just the individuals who are losing. So when somebody goes to college and they start and they take some classes and then they can't afford to stay and they leave with debt and nothing else.

Goldrick-Rab: It's not just their family that's suffering because in that community they have become somebody who feels like education doesn't actually pay off. And we're seeing all over the country the effects of that. You're seeing people who feel angry, they feel betrayed. They are frustrated not just with colleges, but frankly with the government. And they didn't get a college education. So their strategy is for figuring out what to do next. They're not actually that complicated they're just very simple. Throw those people out. And I get it, I really get the emotional response. I get the anger, that anger is affecting everybody. It's not just affecting the people who tried to pay for college.

Grillot: This is an international phenomenon in the sense that you mentioned earlier in the conversation that there's more competition for the students that are going to college even though there are more students going to college. There's also a great deal of competition over international students coming to US universities of which there are millions that want to come to the U.S. because we have the best educational system in the world. But there's a great deal of competition for them but that's also how colleges and universities seem to be making up a lot of this shortfall in revenues and shortfall in funding from their legislatures is by reaching out to an international community. Have you seen any evidence along those lines?

Goldrick-Rab: I mean when you don't have money you go search for money and we have allowed states to charge a higher price for international students. What that means is they look really attractive to colleges and universities that need to bring in revenue. We are recruiting international students for all the wrong reasons. We're not recruiting them because we want our students from the United States to have a global educational experience, to learn from people from other countries, to maybe have some exposure to the challenges that are faced in other parts of the world, to get new perspectives. We are bringing them in for cash and it's starting to backfire frankly.You know one of the issues is look it's one thing to have 10 schools the top 10 schools in the United States recruiting international students. We have thousands of schools now recruiting international students, including community colleges, which by definition were made to serve their local community. When those community colleges start recruiting Chinese students they by definition can't be focused in the same way on their communities. It's not that we don't want Chinese people here. It's just that the institution had a particular mission and it was important that they had money to focus on it. Now they're distracted for example by building dormitories to house these students that they have nowhere to live, then by extending the library hours and the cafeteria hours so that people have somewhere to go. They've been distracted from the hard work of serving the local needs of their communities.

Goldrick-Rab: And by the way those international students they're catching on. Right. These are all smart people who understand that they're being used for their money and they're being charged a price that is not reasonable. Increasing numbers of international students are reporting that they can't make ends meet either. When we open campus food pantries for our local students we're also seeing international students taking advantage of them. Well they should because we brought them here and now they're hungry. So it's an incredible illustration of what happens when you feel like you have no choices and you turn to solutions that actually are exploitative.

Grillot: So here at the end Sarah can you just give us quickly the solutions. What is it that we should do. I know that's a hard question to answer very quickly but. But tell us what it is we need to do.

Goldrick-Rab: I mean the first thing is we have to know that we can do better than this. And I think that's really important I've taken to saying that hope is a strategy because education right now in the United States can feel so hopeless. We see so much wrong around us so we need to get to the hard work of actually first making some short quick fixes. Right. For example by making sure that the dollars that we are spending, even on programs that are popular like the federal work study program, so a student can get a job on campus, that we fix the allocation of those dollars. Right now they flow to campuses based on the age of the institution not based on how many students have financial need. We could fix that tomorrow. We could also do things like instead of just offering financial aid to students and telling them about the Pell Grant, we could tell them about programs that might be able to lower their living costs while they're in college and they can use the money they saved to buy their books. The next thing that we need to do is frankly we need to begin to do what we did 100 years ago with high school which is start to recognize that since the 13 than 14 years are not optional then, yes, we all need to put in some pennies together so that we can pay for it together so that we don't have students saying you know what I'm not going to college because I'm sorry my family just can't afford it. I've worked hard all through high school but that's the end of the road for me. I think making public higher education free is going to pay really huge dividends for this country over time.

Grillot: Sara thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your perspective.

Goldrick-Rab: Thanks again for having me.

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