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Even students with financial aid struggle to succeed in college

In the college cost debate, it’s common to hear complaints about country-club-style amenities fueling tuition hikes and students paying more attention to the dining room offerings of a school than at the cost of deciding where to go.

These kinds of discussions miss the point, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and a well-known activist in the higher education community. And she wrote a book to prove it.

Volume, titled “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream,” tells the stories of six students navigating the higher education system and in particular its costs. The students came from different backgrounds – small towns, big cities, Native American reservations – but all used some kind of financial aid to attend college.

What Goldrick-Rab finds is that for those students, who she believes are representative of others she has studied throughout her career, the financial safety net promised by government officials and colleges themselves often amounts to a patchwork of help that is not enough for them. to cope. An extreme example of this dynamic: About half of the students in community colleges are struggling with food or housing insecurity, according to previous research by Goldrick-Rab.

“There is a broad societal misconception that people generally think that because we have a need-based financial aid system, the needs of those in need are being met,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Part of the reason low-income students can struggle to pay for their education, even with financial aid, is that the system is so complicated, she said. Many of the students she studied did not fully understand the interplay between the demands of their aide, such as maintaining a certain grade point average, and other obligations such as working or caring for members of the team. family. A student presented by Goldrick-Rab took care to avoid going into debt by working nights and weekends. But eventually, the punitive schedule caused her grades to suffer and she was fired from her program, shortly after taking out a loan to complete it.

“It was difficult because I slept in a lot of my classes to try to catch up on sleep,” the student told Goldrick-Rab after being kicked out of the program due to poor academic performance. “It was a combination of stress and driving and trying to do two jobs just so I could afford everything on a daily basis.”

Goldrick-Rab argues that these types of results cannot necessarily be avoided simply through increased financial education, as many colleges, experts, policy makers and the like suggest. Instead, there are larger systemic issues that cause students to struggle.

She suggests what she describes as “common sense” measures that would help ease the burden on low-income students trying to pay for their college education. These include factoring in debt on the Free Federal Student Aid Application (FAFSA) or the Federal Financial Aid Gateway form. Currently, the amount of debt a family or student owes is not factored into the amount of help they will receive. Goldrick-Rab also argues that policymakers should avoid creating conflicting policies that put low-income students at a standstill.

“If you want the poor to finish college, don’t make them work 20 hours a week to get college food stamps,” she said, as an example.

These are smaller steps that Ms. Goldrick-Rab said would improve the system. But she’s also a supporter of the free university, which she says would revamp the system so that instead of schools offering more financial aid as prices rise, we as a nation provide funds for students to obtain degrees as part of a public good.

“America cannot afford to ignore calls for a broad and inclusive system of public higher education that helps families achieve economic security,” she writes in the book.

Goldrick-Rab also works directly to resolve the issues she recounts in the book. She started an organization called The FAST Fund earlier this year, which provides money to teachers in certain schools that they can provide to students in need. Often, teachers are in the best position to distribute this type of help because they are the first to recognize students’ difficulties, Goldrick-Rab explains. For example, a teacher might approach a student about a poorly written assignment, only to find that they were having a hard time completing it between jobs, she says.

“I felt like we had to put bandages on, although I’m clearly working to stop the bleeding to start,” Goldrick-Rab said.

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