Working Classes

Paying the Price BY Sara Goldrick-Rab . University of Chicago Press. . .

The cover of Paying the Price

Most college students aren't just workers-in-training; they are workers. And they're members of the working class. But our national discourse doesn't imagine them that way, and neither do our policies.Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab's book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream looks in detail at the day-to-day lives of struggling students. It's a needed intervention. Goldrick-Rab herself once assumed that a student named Stacey who fell asleep in her class had been partying too much. But when she asked her, she discovered a different explanation: "Copps, the grocery store located two miles from campus, pays a higher wage for employees who work the night shift. . . . Several days a week, she . . . [stocked] shelves from 11 PM until 6 AM, before returning home to change her clothes, drink some coffee, and come to my class." Stacey isn't exceptional; 23 percent of the Wisconsin sophomores Goldrick-Rab looked at worked the night shift.

Paying the Price draws its data and subjects from the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study, which compared qualitative outcomes for three thousand Pell Grant recipients at public schools in Wisconsin. From that number, researchers interviewed fifty in more detail. Goldrick-Rab makes use of this material and profiles six representative students—diverse in their gender, ethnicity, and family circumstancesin greater depth. She gives a far more vivid sense of students' financial predicaments than could be gleaned from statistics alone.

Most Americans don't have a college degree, but most American adults between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-four have tried to obtain one. Policymakers don't encourage prospective students to weigh the possibility that they'll pay for credits that lead nowhere, even though it's a substantial risk. To talk about it that way would be to admit that staying in school and succeeding are not just a matter of individual determination. And those who are able to stay in college often make serious sacrifices; 70 percent of freshman respondents in the Wisconsin study said they changed their eating habits because they were broke. Yet 60 percent of that same group went without a credit card, and some left student loans on the table: Borrowers know that they'll have to pay the money back whether or not they can find a good job. The study depicts students who are trying to be responsible but don't have a lot of responsible options.

As Goldrick-Rab writes, the expectation that "because a previous generation worked its way through college" today's students will be able to do the same "relies on crucial assumptions: that part-time jobs exist, that they pay decent wages, that those wages are enough to help students pay their bills and cover their needs, and that they are scheduled and located in ways that leave enough time left to study." But none of those assumptions is correct. In 2008, when the study began, students working twenty hours a week for a year earned a measly $6,760. A part-time job at minimum wage simply doesn't pay the bills.

Financial aid is supposed to bridge the gap, but Goldrick-Rab finds that policy hasn't kept pace with drastically changing conditions, leaving many students overworked and underfunded. When Pell Grants were introduced in the 1970s, they covered almost the entire price of attendance at public four-year colleges. Now the maximum grant ($5,815 this year) covers only one-third of annual tuition.

Even those aspects of federal-aid policy designed with manifestly progressive intent can have unexpected and often disastrous effects for working-class students and their families. For instance, when students under twenty-four who haven't started their own families or joined the military apply using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, they are presumed to be still dependent on their parents, and the available funding is reduced accordingly. The FAFSA process is used to calculate the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which determines how much parents are supposed to be able to pay toward an applicant's tuition. But these expectations don't always fit reality: Nine of the fifty students interviewed by the researchers weren't receiving their EFC because they were estranged from their parents. There's no legal obligation for parents to pay, and a substantial number don't. Others simply can't afford the expected amount.

So a policy that's supposed to screen out wealthy freeloaders—the theory is that without the EFC calculation, rich families could send their kids to Yale at taxpayers' expense—ends up harming the students who are most in need of assistance. In a couple of cases, interviewees saw their parents' employment status improve while they were in school. That should be good news, but an increase in parental income also means an increase in EFC, which means a decrease in financial aid. All of a sudden, the student's bills go up.

And the EFC isn't the only aspect of the current system that inadvertently pits ambitious working-class kids against their parents. Goldrick-Rab cites an interviewee who wished to go to school full-time but was living with her mother in subsidized housing. The subsidy was off-limits to full-time students: She could either be poor or in college, there's no box to check for both at the same time. Once again, the logic is understandable: Why should college students take up spots in subsidized housing? But this student was stuck; the rules did not envision her scenario, and she couldn't complete her degree.

A more universally generous federal-aid program would inevitably have some loopholes. To ensure that no one ends up with less than their fair share, we may have to accept that a few people will get more help than they need. At a certain point, we face a decision: Which situation is more intolerable—one in which someone can enjoy a few extra vacations courtesy of the taxpayer, or the current one, in which, according to Goldrick-Rab, large numbers of working-class students go hungry? When we're starving students by policy, the policy needs to change.

Malcolm Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia.