“Paying the Price”: The Must Read Book on the Many Taxing Costs of College

This evening I read and throughly enjoyed Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (2016). Clear writing, scholarly activism and clear passion for simply doing the right thing regarding college costs, and an excellent balance of quantitative and qualitative data make this monograph a must read for college students and their families, college professors and administrators, as well as politicians–to just begin. 

College costs have skyrocketed. At a college near my home, tuition has doubled in a little less than ten years. Goldrick-Rab explains that while there is no “higher ed system” proper in the United States, colleges and universities across the board have become much more expensive and unaffordable for most due to on-going declines in state appropriations for public institutions, older generations not internalizing changing economic circumstances, neoliberal logic, rising costs of providing a college education, and the competing demands and pressures students face, for example.

Goldrick-Rab, however, is not so concerned with why college is so expensive as far as tuition and books and fees go but is very concerned with how people attempt to deal with such costs and what the consequences are. By telling the story of six students, she provides vivid and human examples that illustrate how very painful college can be and is for most students (and in ways that having nothing to do with debates over “safe spaces” and whatnot).  

Did you know that roughly a quarter of college students experience at least some problems obtaining everyday food? Some skip meals to save money or because they don’t have any money. Students cannot be both ‘food insecure’ and successful in their degrees. Did you know that colleges could easily have a “free food” program the way K-12 schools do? 

Did you know that college students are sometimes homeless?

Do you know the difference between private student loans, federal student loans, pell grants, financial aid and work study, and other grants and scholarships and then how these all interact and sometimes set students up to fail? Students don’t and aren’t supposed to

Did you know that the advertised costs of college are misleading? When you think of the cost of college do you consider ALL of the expenses a person encounters while a student, even those that have nothing to do with being a student, per se? Did you know that parents, in hiding their financial information, sometimes prevent thier children from getting free money? 

Did you know that students also pay an “opportunity cost”? (This is especially true for people who earn a doctorate and hope to get a full-time job!) While they might be building a career or family, they are in school – this a “cost” of possibly opportunity for a chance at better opportunity. 

Did you know that there is statistically virtually no abuse of government funding for college and that students are not “wasteful” with personal money?    

Have you thought about the emotional costs of college? Friends who don’t understand college or a change in their friend; missing out of social activities on campus because of work; missing out on sleep because of debt, work, family, and course work; rigorous courses; and so on?

Did you know that poverty is so prevalent that already-broke college students frequently help their parents pay basic bills?

Did you know that students dropout of college everyday because they are dead broke? that students just disappear sometimes and do not return calls? 

Because society says they should and need to: Did you know that students engage in paid employment for longer hours and less pay, while taking more hours and paying more than students ever before? Its common place for a student to work one or two or three jobs for a total of 20-30 or more hours a week, while taking four, five, or even six courses. And these jobs do not understand or support the efforts of college students in far too many cases. Did you know that working decreases chances of graduating?

Did you know society regularly labels people in their 20s and 30s lazy out of pure ignorance?

Did you know students enroll in programs at colleges as a way out of hopefully moving out of bad neighborhoods and perpetual poverty? as a way of protecting themselves from such pasts? 

Did you know that “higher ed” as currently operated merely maintains the status quo in many cases? Graduating from college thousands and thousands and thousands in debt somewhat defeats the purpose of going to college to advance economically after all. 

Did you know that college degrees take so long to complete, not because of course requirements, but because of expenses?

Did you know that some states already provide free college? (Some specific community colleges do for dual credit students or in-district students.) Did you know everyone could have free college and that this wouldn’t have to cost anything more for taxpayers?

Did you know that providing free college for potential students is simply the right thing to do and perfectly matches the trajectory of education in the United States? Did you know that doing so would also provide much-needed jobs for countless PhDs? 

I’m guessing you didn’t know most of the above, and if that’s the case, you now have a dozen plus reasons to read Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream!! What are you waiting on?? 

She addresses the above and so much more. You’ll be sad for many of those six students she follows and really, really glad for one of them. Goldrick-Rab makes perfect use of data to draw conclusions and generalizations and then also shows how that people are not mere statistics – people are individuals and their behavior sometimes aligns with the data, other times doesn’t.

This book is a model for the kind of conversations we should all be having so that we understand our students a bit better. I’ve been teaching in higher ed for a long time and a student in higher ed for a bit longer, and I learned so much about what my student face. This book was especially important for me since I was lucky enough to pay for college and grad school with a variety of specific scholarships and assistantships, gifts, savings, and teaching, so I never had to experience the FAFSA, student loans, or whatnot. I knew many students struggled to buy books (even $10 books), but didn’t have any understanding of what most students went through to get money for college. 

“Paying the price” for college in 2016 is no simple tasks for most people in the United States. Students, for instance, “pay” by not learning as much as they could, by not graduating as quickly or ever, by working and starving and exhausting themselves, by having conflicts with family and friends, by taking a gamble and by not having any kind of secure place in this complicated, messy modern world we’ve created. Being young in the 2010s is hard, college and technology make it all the more harder.

As a society, we have an immediate responsibilty to make sure students understand the full costs of degrees and all the realted dynamics and to make sure they know that while college is about jobs it is also about becoming a different person in ways

Although beyond the scope of this book, I would be interested in reading about how queer students (and a break down of these students by more specific identities, as applicable) experience the high costs of college. I am also very curious about the future of higher education as technology takes over more and more jobs. 

After you read the book, let me know what you think!

Andrew Joseph Pegoda