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How College Aid Is Like A Bad Coupon

The college financial aid system is both meager and unwieldy, says author Sara Goldrick-Rab. "Our first really big takeaway was that if the goal is to get people money, financial aid doesn't do a great job. There's 50 steps between you and the money you need."

Ian grew up in Milwaukee, in an African-American family with five kids where the annual income was just $25,000. He was involved in sports and after-school activities, and spent a year working after high school to save up for college. He saw himself as a role model in his community: "They see me going to college and are like, 'Oh, he's doing something positive, he's breaking through the ceiling.' "

Our college aid system is generally assumed to be set up to help students like Ian, one of six young people profiled in Sara Goldrick-Rab's new book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. But when he enrolled in a public university in 2008, even after the federal Pell grant and a Wisconsin state grant, Ian found himself short $10,000 a year — the full cost of books, supplies, transportation, room and board.

In other words, his unmet need, as policy wonks call it, was 40 percent of his family's annual income.

Goldrick-Rab is a Temple University professor — a scholar-advocate known for her outspokenness on issues including tenure and the fate of public universities. This book, however, is grounded in data, not rhetoric.

She and and her team studied 3,000 people who entered public colleges and universities in Wisconsin in the fall of 2008. Twelve hundred were selected to receive an extra grant for college from a private donor fund, and the rest were a comparison group. (The study's funders included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also supports NPR Ed).

Her team pored through everything from the students' financial aid packages to their transcripts, and they had the students complete long surveys. The researchers also traveled to six different campuses to interview a representative group of 50 students in depth, over and over, for six years.

The results match what other studies have told us: Half the students in the study left college without a degree, while fewer than 20 percent finished within five years. But it was through getting to know that smaller subset of students, Goldrick-Rab says, that they were able to capture the details and texture that other research has left out.

The financial aid system is both meager and unwieldy, she tells NPR Ed in an interview: "Our first really big takeaway was that if the goal is to get people money, financial aid doesn't do a great job. There's 50 steps between you and the money you need."

And even when students like Ian jump through all the necessary hoops, often it turns out there are huge shortfalls.

I always heard this statement that the 'purchasing power of the Pell Grant has declined.' But that doesn't really capture how it feels.

Pell Grant recipients don't think they're going to have to take loans to go to school. The message out there, including from Michelle Obama, is, 'Things are going to be cool, do your FAFSA and everything is going to be fine.'

From the student's eyes, it's like you bought a Groupon that when you read it you got the impression it paid for 75 percent of whatever you were buying. You went to a nice restaurant you would never go to. And once you ate dinner you find out it only pays for 30 percent.

I used the word betrayal in the subtitle for a reason. They feel betrayed by a system that tells people they're going to take care of them, and leaves them way short.

What are some other ways you feel traditional higher education research doesn't capture all the nuances of students' lives today?

I could make a list of 10 things that researchers are completely missing that leads them to downplay the challenges students face. Like, they don't know in how many cases the "expected family contribution" [part of the federal aid formula that describes how much families are supposed to throw in for college costs] was actually paid by the student. Or when the student actually had a negative EFC, because they were supposed to be helping support their families, but it's truncated at zero by federal formula. So it looks like a student who should be able to make it is not.

And another finding in the book was that the times that students worked could affect their success as much as their hours.

Yes. I was inspired to look at this because one of my students was falling asleep in class. One of the effects of the grant [from the private donors] was that it cut in half the number of people working the graveyard shift. Faced with the option, you don't want to be working all night and then come to class.

What else were you surprised by?

When we talk about the labor force in general, we know the unemployment rate typically includes people who are actively seeking work. But with undergrads, all that the studies ever ask is, 'Are you working or not?' We found that in Milwaukee, 60 percent of the students who were not employed were looking for work. They were often grappling with racial discrimination, and looking for work took up time.

It sounds like part of your agenda here is to look at students more broadly as workers, and think about the economic decisions that govern their lives.

Exactly. I think part of the special treatment that happens in higher education research is there are a lot of things we don't assess because we assume mommy and daddy are taking care of them.

You're publishing this book just as a number of proposals to make college free have become part of the presidential campaign. How do you feel about that?

I am thrilled that the conversation is going as far as it has. It's been faster and more detailed than I thought it would be.

Nancy Kendall and I wrote this proposal for two free years of college [for the Lumina Foundation in 2014]. The idea is to make the program simple and universal and to deal with people's lack of trust.

What I've laid out in the book and more generally has been halfway between Hillary [Clinton's] and Bernie [Sanders'] proposals.

I don't like capping at $125,000 [family income]. We don't want to figure out who has $125,000. But I didn't go for Bernie's ALL four years: I knew the prospect of sending people to UW Madison or Berkeley for free would freak people out.

What's your thoughts on other approaches to getting more students through college? We recently covered the topic of "nudges" or better communications strategies for financial aid from behavioral economics.

If you're a social psychologist, a behavioral economist, or just really into more money: each of those camps can find their evidence in this book. But the money thing is just so basic. All the rest is dessert.

In addition to launching the book you've recently announced a philanthropic project called the FAST Fund, where the idea is to have faculty target emergency cash grants directly to their students. What inspired that?

FAST stands for Faculty And Students Together. The point is that when students are having trouble with money they usually think about their aid officer, who they don't trust. But they tend to like their faculty, who aren't in a position to help them. I want to build up the power of that relationship. We know money feels differently depending on who's giving it and how they talk about it.

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