Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream
Citation (APA): Goldrick-Rab, S. (2016). Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
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Grants, loans, work-study, and tax credits are—at annual cost of almost $240 billion—supposed
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There is reason for hope. An improved college financing system could help America create a future where more people can use their own hard work to get ahead. These college successes will get better jobs, contribute more to the common good as taxpayers, and lean on the government less for support throughout their lives. Such a future would be far brighter than the one we face today.
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We be heavily investing in education to reap these benefits.
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experts often trying to blame financial aid recipients rather than the system. Data
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The way the experts see this data.
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Economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have linked these major investments in public education to a growth in human capital that enabled the United States to thrive as a global economic powerhouse.9
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Here's the "payoff" from the 1st note.
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Soaring rhetoric about the value of hard work obscures the fact that family money has long been one of the best predictors of college success.
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Why 1st gen students are so crucial.
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Rarely do state expenditures per student come anywhere close to matching the federal investment in the Pell Grant.15
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disinvestment in higher education may be the direct result of shifts in political priorities.19
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Had states been required to maintain a reasonable level of commitment (say, the ten dollars or so per $1,000 of personal income provided in 1981), the total amount states contribute to higher education today would be about $146 billion, instead of the $81 billion contributed in 2015.21
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It also does little to ensure that the education delivered is high quality,
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For-profit colleges and universities benefit substantially, pocketing billons in federal student aid each year while producing degrees that employers value far less than community college degrees, often equating them with high school diplomas.23
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How many students by % attend for profit colleges?
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When the Pell program began, Pell Grants subsidized more than 80 percent of the cost of attending the average public university and all of the costs of attending a community college. Things are different now. Today the maximum Pell covers less than one-third of the cost of attending a public four-year college or university and barely 60 percent of the cost of attending a community college.
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The current Pell Grant spending power.
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Purchasing power of the Pell Grant at public institutions, by type:
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A "current" snapshot would be interesting.
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At the same time, economic restructuring and political decision making has rendered higher education the singular option for getting ahead in America.
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Today, the American vision of success runs this way: good parenting and hard work leads young adults to college, college attendance (both for young adults and midlife back-to-school students) leads to better jobs, stronger families, happier marriages, and healthier and longer lives. College is supposed to grant entry to (or at least keep you in) the middle class and certainly more or less guarantee you earn enough money to make ends meet.
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Great few sentences
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Today 22 percent of the sixty-seven million children in the United States live under the federal poverty level.26
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We do far less to support impoverished children and their families than we once did, withholding cash assistance, food stamps, and affordable housing unless or until we are convinced they work hard enough to be “deserving” of help, requiring not only drug tests and jobs of parents, but often frequent reapplications and jumping through multiple bureaucratic hoops as well.28
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At the same time, we pressure their schools and teachers to educate students, regardless of the disadvantages they face in their homes and communities.
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Sucks even more
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Higher education is no longer seen as a choice or a luxury—it is viewed as the only available next step and, indeed, the only hope.
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This is a false hope.
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There is no guarantee, in other words, that college-educated people from low-income families will not be left behind.
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degrees—the bonus that appears evident when you compare the earnings of a person who holds a bachelor’s degree to those of a high school graduate—does not accrue equally for everyone. The returns on investing time and money in college are uneven and unstable since they depend on opportunities in the ever-shifting labor market—a
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People who grow up in economically fragile circumstances often continue to live in economically fragile communities, even after they attend college.34
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“The democratic community cannot tolerate a society based upon education for the well-to-do alone. If college opportunities are restricted to those in the higher income brackets, the way is open to the creation and perpetuation of a class society which has no place in the American way of life.”38
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Very applicable quote for today.
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were born in 1990.
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a national poll found that Americans felt that “education, schooling, and the ability to afford college” was one of the top two most important problems facing the nation.42
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Football player with blood clotting disease had to move home for school. In the "missing class."
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Native American wrestler who wants to be an accountant. Got very large scholarships, including on merit.
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African American who seems really selfless and aims to be a positive example to others. States that he is not struggles in high school. Used to not having much, even to eat.
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South Asian girl from Nepal. Not confident as a girl with two brothers who shoot for the stars. Seeking to associates degree to be a graphic designer.
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Small town girl, Sophie had "middle-class life experiences" but a divorce had her father not intend to contribute to college. She wants to stick it to that jerk and hopes to become a Christian motivational speaker.
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Most Pell recipients do not come from a background of generational poverty.
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Another small town girl, Chloe expected to go to college and wants to work with animals.
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Tyler, Ian, Norbert, Nima, Sophie, and Chloe are not composites.
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Reading about people is so much better than straight statistics. I am now reading for their stories. This is a good formula for a book like this to be engaging.
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none of these six students began college with even an inkling that they could leave college without a degree, nor did the vast majority of the thousands of students we surveyed. In other words, these Pell recipients started college with great expectations.
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As forward-thinking individuals, we never think failure is an option in our lives when setting goals/expectations.
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Fewer economic resources often mean a lower likelihood of participating in extracurricular activities, visiting professors during office hours, and spending time on campus. In turn, this results in fewer opportunities to build relationships that could pave the way for social networks yielding greater returns to the college degree.47
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These observed differences are often attributed to social class writ large, a configuration of economic, cultural, and social resources that come together to create advantages and disadvantages.50
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Socioeconomic privilege defined.
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What does it really mean to say that paying for college is difficult? Under what circumstances do students find it challenging, and when does it feel manageable? Is it about the absolute amount of money held in hand, or are students’ perceptions of affordability shaped by other factors? How do they cope with financial challenges? How do these affect school? Does family help out?
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Some of the questions investigated.
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Nima, Chloe, Tyler, Norbert, Ian, and Sophie represent the range of men and women we interviewed over time. While each is unique in his or her own way, they are actually quite typical.
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they demonstrated a commitment to a brighter future.
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a generation ago public colleges and universities received on average about 75 percent of their operating budget from state appropriations. Today that number is closer to 50 percent.1
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when students choose to go to school instead of working full time, they are passing up short-term wages in the hopes that their investment in college will bring much larger lifetime gains. They would have used those wages to cover living costs
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When tuition is frozen, these living costs are not—and just as they do for many Americans not attending college, they can outstrip what families can afford. This is one reason why efforts to freeze tuition or reduce tuition to zero often don’t succeed in making college affordable. Students can’t focus on their studies when they’ve given up work hours for classes and can’t afford to pay their living costs.
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The "hidden costs" of college as an "unpaid internship."
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Our research has substantiated all of these problems.11
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university administrations and admissions and financial aid offices face incentives to look affordable.
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What we found surprised us: at least one-fifth of all institutions provide living allowances at least 20 percent below what we estimated was necessary for a very modest standard of living. Further, colleges located in the same area reported widely varying living costs. For example, colleges in Washington, DC, claimed living costs ranging from $9,387 to $20,342, while in Milwaukee figures ranged from $5,180 to $21,276.
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the assumption that living at home is free just does not hold true.
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stated tuition applies only to the upcoming year—and it is likely to change. Annual tuition increases are common across higher education,
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Just 19 percent of full-time students at public universities complete a bachelor’s degree in four years and just 5 percent of full-time students at community colleges finish an associate degree in two years.
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fees increased faster than tuition, growing by 104 percent at community colleges and 95 percent at public universities.18 Therefore, like tuition, the prices students are quoted for fees are applicable only to their first year, since fees will likely rise.
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If the true price of attendance is higher than the stated cost of attendance, families must make up the difference. Of course, federal and state aid is not designed to help with those costs—since federal and state authorities often don’t recognize that those costs exist.
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Generally speaking, the formula works such that the more income and assets a family has, the higher the expected family contribution—the
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the analysis does better at sorting between wealthy people and the middle class than it does at delineating between the lower-middle class and the working class.
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Harder to parse need for groups as needs increase.
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Parent PLUS Loans, which require a credit check, come with higher market-based interest rates that can fluctuate from year to year, and offer no income-based repayment or pay-as-you-earn options.
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Poor loan options.
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Cost of attendance (COA): The “sticker price”
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Expected family contribution (EFC): The federal government’s measure of a family’s financial ability to pay for college,
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Net price: The difference between the COA and all grants and scholarships equals the bottom line cost of college for the student and/or his or her family. It represents the price that must be paid using income, savings, and loans.
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I really don’t think that’s fair because that makes it sound like the parents have to pay for the college—that doesn’t make any sense to me. . . . You’re telling me, like, if I just went and got married to someone, then I would be able to get all my schooling paid for, or if I was able to knock up this girl and, you know, be with her then I could get all my schooling paid for? I don’t think that really is a good way to put that. You know what I mean? I wish I had a kid to bring to school so I got my schooling paid for.
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Cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all doesn't apply universally.
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Many students actually have a negative expected family contribution.
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aid policies do not accurately reflect their real costs or ability to pay. And it is why aid officers like those we interviewed who adhere to these policies often don’t know or understand students’ true costs and ability to pay
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Opportunity for infographics?
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students must complete the FAFSA.
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Negative connotations in memories.
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FAFSA is notoriously onerous and complex to fill out.24
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But gathering the necessary information can take much longer—it
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that it was sometimes very difficult to obtain their parents’ information.28 Some parents don’t want to share detailed information about their income and assets with their child
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For many students, the Pell Grant is the centerpiece of the aid package.
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when a Pell is awarded but does not cover all of a student’s need, financial aid officers turn to other federal grants and then to state grants to fill the gap. When that is not enough, and it often is not, they add loans and work-study funds to the package. They also look for private sources of aid, institutional scholarships, foundation scholarships, and whatever else is available.
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The financial aid combination process.
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That is because for financial aid recipients, the cost of attendance represents the maximum support a student can receive from any source. If private aid is available, then state or federally supported aid (excluding the Pell) must be removed such that the cost of attendance is not exceeded.
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This was an aspect of why I personally didn't seek our additional aid. There's a huge threshold to surpass before benefiting from receiving additional aid.
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By and large, the students hoped to follow the appropriate rules—but they did not always know what they were.
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Following the Rules
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Ridiculously complicated rules.
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including first-generation college students
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For students, the many different components of financial aid can all begin to blur together.
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In a sense, sometimes a grant acts as an increasingly small coupon that entices a student to try college, but at the end of the day leaves them with a bill they can’t afford.
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explained that getting it led him to focus even further on his goal: graduation.
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I like the idea of students knowing where the money comes from. Almost like an accountability mechanism or a point of encouragement.
Thinking about how to bring the "social" into the grant exchange both on the giving and receiving side. Attempt to make it a communal exchange.
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When they feel informed, they seem to make more effective choices.
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They are governed by thousands of rules and regulations, and interviews reveal that many feel that they serve multiple masters with vastly differing goals—the federal government, their college president, the boss overseeing their unit, and, of course, students and their families.
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nearly 60 percent of our students sought financial aid advising. Remarkably, given the demands on financial aid personnel, 95 percent of those who asked for help received it.
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whether someone’s parent is actually living or dead, and you have to collect death certificates.
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it’s no surprise that we found trust hard to come by between financial aid recipients and financial aid offices.
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Studies examining the question reach conflicting conclusions about the efficacy of aid, mainly because of the enormous array of differences across studies in the types of financial aid examined, the conditions associated with that aid, how much aid is given
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For more than forty years, researchers have studied federal grants and state grants, need-based grants, and scholarships distributed based on academic “merit”
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This is very important, since the characteristics that make students eligible for aid often also make them less likely to finish college.
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The more complicated the grant program, the less effective it seems to be, and the evidence on the effects of loans and work-study programs is much less promising than for grants.50
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Simple grants are the way to go?
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Alleviating those constraints should help students focus on school rather than work, reduce stress, and make it more likely that they will be well rested and well fed when they are trying to learn. But what if financial aid fails to reduce many financial constraints—perhaps because it does not provide money in the ways that students need, or it is too little or too late?
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Only research on money as it is actually possessed and used by college students can accomplish that.
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Her struggle to find time to eat was part of a story full of much bigger sacrifices, ones totally unlike mine.
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To pay for college, Chloe sold her beloved horse.
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Over the last twenty years, the number of undergraduates from lower-income families receiving financial support for college from the federal Pell Grant grew from just under four million to more than nine million. Total Pell expenditures are now about $35 billion a year.1
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Are we doing students from low-income families a service by funding part of their college expenses or a disservice by giving them false hopes? Is the Pell program a sound financial investment in the nation’s future, or is it a wasteful and ineffective program that allows students access to money—perhaps even enticing them to attend college and incur debt—without ensuring that they graduate from college?
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Be interesting to know more about student completion demographics.
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so as to “motivate students to work harder in high school” and ensure that dollars are focused on the students “most able to benefit.”11 Such statements are a form of dog-whistle politics, which employs language that is coded, meaning one thing to the general audience while being pejorative to a targeted subgroup.12
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How many high school students would actually be motivated by such a program?
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the Pell runner is a politically powerful concept that has little basis in reality and diverts attention from the real issues.
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student aid fraud, it estimated a total fraud loss of about $187 million between 2009 and 2012 for a program that was responsible for almost $758 billion during that time. In other words, the loss rate was about 0.0002 percent.16
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compromise might be to disburse financial aid in segments throughout the semester and only to students who attend classes and demonstrate academic progress.
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is promoting and evaluating two financial aid innovations—one that makes grant aid conditional on performance, and another that distributes the funds in smaller increments “like a paycheck.”19
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Demonization of all who need aid when real people need the assistance. Fictional or not, this perception is a serious problem when grouping everyone together indiscriminately.
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In the mid-1990s, the key concern driving welfare critics and reformers was the worry that long-term cash benefits to women with young children would breed a cycle of permanent dependency.
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Pell Grants, in contrast, are based on the idea that higher education is critical to long-term economic success both for individuals and for the nation as a whole—and this has never been truer than it is today.
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There is no evidence that Pell recipients get “hooked” on college classes, either. They attend just long enough to complete degrees.
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What is similar between the two programs is that they provide income intended to promote upward mobility and they are attractive targets for budget cuts.
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grounded in America’s history, where thinking about social programs has long been intertwined with racial, class, and gender politics.23
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most children from impoverished families still don’t attend college.24
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Families living within 200 percent of the poverty line, which includes 85 percent of Pell recipients, and even many families with children who live slightly above it, have very little disposable income to use for education.28
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families earning $50,000–$70,000 per year are able to spend only about 1.3 percent of their income on education.
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I feel like my parents spent more than this on me when they were making around this much. I wonder how much they were actually making versus how much they spent on my education.
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The families of Pell recipients are economically fragile, but they are rarely welfare recipients—just 3 percent receive welfare.
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a lack of quality, affordable, on-campus childcare prevents most low-income people with children from entering college, and so barely one in three Pell recipients is a parent.
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data indicate that the average Pell Grant recipient looks very much like a middle-class American.
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it is the starting price—what a student faces for the first year.35
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Recall that the price is not set and increases each year.
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The Pell Grant clearly provides an incentive for students to attend college by discounting the price of attendance, but it comes nowhere close to making college affordable.
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rising tuition and fees in the public sector, but most of the growth has been in nontuition costs, which account for two-thirds or more of the total costs. These include books and supplies and living costs, which must be at least partially covered if a student is to focus on school instead of working full time.36
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rates of borrowing are so much higher for Pell recipients than for people who do not have Pell (88% vs. 53%)—the Pell recipients have little choice but to take loans to pay for college.40
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When the odds of noncompletion are high, and economic returns are uncertain, it is reasonable for a person to hesitate to invest in college. Since society reaps substantial benefits when the poor complete college, it is a sound public policy decision to lower the price to reduce the risk.
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But the ability of today’s students to make ends meet through work alone has been compromised by at least two factors: underfunding of the federal work-study program, and a weak economy that offers few stable opportunities to part-time workers,
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One in two Pell recipients attending public colleges and universities work, for an average of twenty-five hours per week.
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the amount of debt and the difficulties finding and keeping a job have changed, as have the economic conditions facing lower-income families.
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Had the rules allowed, the information provided on their FAFSAs suggests that 16 percent of our students overall (and 24% of those at two-year colleges) would have had a negative expected family contribution averaging more than $10,600.
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The history of federal student aid since its inception has been a series of ebbs and flows, periods of generosity and periods of cuts, all while college costs continued to rise.
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Support for helping economically vulnerable students like ours secure a better future through higher education has been inconsistent, leaving their opportunities subject to a volatile mix of politics and economics.
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Their first challenge is to get their families to contribute the expected family contribution. Then, they need to decide whether to take federal loans. That decision is often closely intertwined with another key decision: whether and how much to work. As mentioned earlier, work-study is available to only a small number of students. So it is important to figure out where else to find work and how to make a schedule that fits with school.
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Twenty years ago working part time while in school was a viable way to pay for college and avoid loans.6 Today, students are much more likely to both borrow and work—and given the desires of students and their families to avoid taking out loans, it is clear that this behavior is not based on a change in preferences.7
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Debt has implications not only for financial capabilities postcollege but also for the odds of completing a degree in the first place.
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federal loans consisted almost entirely of subsidized loans targeted to needy families. These loans are the “best” of the available federal loans since they do not accrue interest until a student leaves college and a grace period ends.
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Interest on unsubsidized loans begins accruing as soon as a student takes them.
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Is this what Paige had?
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A disproportionate fraction of our African American students (38% as compared to 11% of white students) had a negative expected family contribution, signaling that their families had a great deal of financial need.
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In other words, income translates into wealth differently for black and white families.
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indebted college dropouts are disproportionately low-income African Americans.19
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Given that the Pell program was created to ensure that people from low-income families could afford to attend college without putting themselves and their loved ones into economic jeopardy, it is notable that more than half of our students took a loan for their first year of college.
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Percentage with multiple jobs
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But students who get grants, work a job or two, and take out loans are not just risking their time should they fail to graduate. If they end up with debt and without a degree, they are at the greatest risk of defaulting on their loans or falling into delinquency.21
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trouble—the less college you complete, the less debt you have, but the less likely you are to repay.22
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low-income families hold student debt amounting to about 70 percent of their income, while wealthier families have student debt amounting to around 10 percent of income
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What a huge discrepancy.
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many students reported a downside: intense, daily worry about loans and debt. That stress can change what it means to be an undergraduate. Psychologically, the moment a student accepts a loan—an action that often does not feel like a choice—they begin paying a price.
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Loan aversion is far more complicated than it is often portrayed. It is not a stable characteristic but rather an attitude, sometimes generalized and sometimes specific.
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Most policymakers and researchers think that because college offers the most promising pathway to socioeconomic mobility in the United States, it is reasonable to expect families to take out loans. After all, children almost always outearn their parents, and they are more likely to do so if they attend college.36 Since risk of default is therefore minimal, they think that low-income students and their families should feel comfortable taking on the risk of a loan as an investment because of the greater earning power a degree will bring.37
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Easy for them to say.
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because they disproportionately attend for-profit and community colleges where financial aid is scarce and the price of attendance is high.38
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For example, 38 percent of people from low-income families will remain in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution even if they earn a college degree. And that is an important “if,” given that only 11 percent of them are likely to complete degrees.39
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loans preserve the ability of many students to attend college at all.
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In his fourth year of college, Norbert said he wanted to study abroad but knew that his tribal scholarship did not cover those expenses. He thought about taking a small student loan to finance it but decided against it.
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Lots of Americans feel strongly that working while in college is a positive American tradition.41
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But the idea that, because a previous generation worked its way through college, this generation can, too, 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.
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She was motivated, the first in her family to attend college, and trying her best to make ends meet, but she was also exhausted. School and work were both required, but they were not coming together the way she had planned. As her professor, I knew none of this—until I asked.
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the students in our survey averaged almost eighteen hours a week on the job,
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In 1960, 25 percent of full-time college students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four worked while enrolled.43 Five decades later, national statistics show that over 70 percent of undergraduates are working
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Working through college not only threatens degree completion but also crowds out social activities. Things like school-related events, organizations, clubs, or leisure time are important, yet long working hours limit a student’s ability to participate, shutting out opportunities for social connections.47
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Many studies conducted over the last thirty years suggest that students who work more than twenty hours a week are less likely to graduate.50
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Unlike their wealthier counterparts, Pell recipients often do not experience the type of rigorous college preparatory curricula in high school that can make much college course work a breeze. Pell recipients also tend to carry more familial obligations. The bottom line: time spent at work may reduce the odds of degree completion for Pell recipients even more than it does for wealthier students.
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One student reflected on her job as a break from her hectic life and consequentially preferred longer shifts
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She was facing impossible choices, and while describing them during interviews she often cried.
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But it was too late in the semester to repair the damage done to her grades.
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Lots of work and no time to study and do much homework.
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Since the work-study salary comes from a separate account than other departmental expenses, faculty and researchers like myself often hire work-study students. We pay little, and we are happy with the arrangement—until the funds expire. At that point, the employer often ends the position without warning.
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But then Sophie got caught in the downside of income gains.
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When parents’ salaries increase while students are enrolled in college, students are financially harmed unless their parents are able to make up for lost financial aid with an equal contribution to college expenses. More specifically, parents need to cover both the expected family contribution (which rises along with income) and the lost financial aid in order to hold the student harmless.
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Families living with persistently low incomes for decades experience very different circumstances than those who suffer a temporary loss of income. Lower middle-class families with steady incomes provide different opportunities than families with spottier employment records who circulate in and out of needing the social safety net for support.68
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Today’s financial aid system leads undergraduates to worry about the adverse side effects of their parents’ good fortunes.
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Did without a computer 18
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Cut back on social activities/entertainment 80
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Nima said that this was the second most important lottery she had ever won—the first was the visa lottery won by her mother that enabled them to leave Nepal for America.2
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she was no longer enrolled by the time the funds arrived.
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The story of his life as he told it was a series of near-fails.
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Students like Tyler make some people who work in the financial aid system wonder if the system is working.
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“I’m sure we have made strides, but when you look at the big picture, I’m not sure if we’ve gone forward or backward. Tuition then was nowhere what it is today. Financial aid was really meant to cover tuition and fees and books. This whole thing about living expenses—it was there but that money was meant for direct educational expenses. With the expansion of the loan program the whole thing just mushroomed, where now I see students using financial aid as their income. I struggle with that, I do.”
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Is she right? Should students who need funds in order to make ends meet participate in college? Are they cut out for the college experience?
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“At eighteen, incoming freshman today are younger than they were ten or twenty years ago. They are coming to college and don’t have the financial piece figured out. There are lots of ways to figure out how the bill is going to get paid, but there shouldn’t be any students that don’t know how to pay that bill as of September 1 and a lot of students don’t know and don’t pay.” Some students, aid administrators report, are “grateful” while other students “think they are owed” financial aid and do not behave responsibly with it.
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Nationally, about half of all Pell recipients at public colleges and universities are from families living below the poverty line, and many of these students come to college to escape the material hardships they have long lived with (see table 4). Forty percent of our students said that as children at least sometimes they had to “wear second-hand clothes,” and one in four reported that at least sometimes there “wasn’t enough to eat at home.” Furthermore, 34 percent said that there was not always “someone available to care for and protect” them when they were young.
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What these students often did not realize was that attending college without sufficient resources meant that they would continue to go without their basic needs met. For others, they would experience situational poverty for the first time. This is part of the new economics of college.
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How prepared are students to live in situational poverty?
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During his first three years of college, Ian Williams lived at home with his family, where no one had enough to eat. He rationalized this as a continuation of his childhood. “Sometimes we don’t [have enough money to eat] but I just feel like I’m used to that. I’m used to not eating a lot so . . . another person might find it a problem but to me, it’s not, because I’m used to it.”
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Twenty-four percent of our students indicated that in the past month they did not have enough money to buy food, ate less then they felt they should, or cut the size of their meals because there was not enough money
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When asked if they ever went without eating for an entire day because they lacked enough money for food, 6 percent of students said yes.7
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one in five students was hungry, and 13 percent were homeless.8
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Last Friday, a student who said he was homeless asked me how he could register for classes without an address. “Have you had anything to eat today?” I asked. This is a question many colleagues ask all the time. He had not. I gave him money to go to the cafeteria, and I told him to buy two sandwiches. I know students will often not take as much food as they need. This student brought me one of the two sandwiches. I gave that back to him. Another who had told me, “I guess you could tell that I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” took only some juice. With encouragement, she accepted a hot dog, which she ate, and three sandwiches that she said she would take home to her children.13
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The more extreme cases. Jeez.
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“I live on two dollars to five dollars a day. That means two meals a day, and incredibly unhealthy food.
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The problem is that when a student is hungry, she has difficulty learning.
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We have to meet students’ basic needs in order for them to fully concentrate on assimilating the information in a class in a way that they can apply it, learn, and take it forward.”17
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inverse relationship between food insecurity and academic achievement.18
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Students who spent their childhoods worrying about food continued to have those worries during college. A key difference is that while the National School Lunch Program was available to them during high school, there was no such program for them in college.
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Periods of sleep longer or shorter than seven to eight hours per night have been shown to be associated with learning and memory problems, depression, obesity, and accidents.25
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In the public sector, accessing benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid often requires long visits to a series of different offices. Many people are unaware that they are eligible for benefits, and others feel a sense of stigma that prevents them from applying. The investment of time required to obtain benefits can also be unmanageable for students struggling to keep up with schoolwork, juggling multiple jobs, and handling family responsibilities.
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Single Stop sounds very good. TurboTax of finding and receiving government aid?
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They said things like ‘Ma’am, I’m living in my car.’ We are the entrée to higher education for our community . . . and fundamentally all we could do was just close our doors and cry.”31
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but we do know that they had limited resources with which to respond. The students told us that they often felt quite alone.
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Scarcity imposes psychic costs, reducing mental bandwidth and distorting decision making in ways that make their situations worse, not better.
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Positive reinforcement cycle. :/
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I examined the results for public universities and colleges in Wisconsin and was disturbed to learn that 43 percent of students surveyed felt that they felt they could use support for their mental health.
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Notably, 12 percent of these Wisconsin undergraduates said that they had thought about suicide in the last twelve months.33
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Nationally, 10 percent of students report either seriously considering suicide or attempting suicide in the last year.34
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Jeez 1 in 10 students. :(
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Eisenberg and his colleagues find that, among students with depression or anxiety, up to 84 percent do not receive services, “even in an environment with universal access to free short-term psychotherapy and basic health services.” Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were especially unlikely to get care, he found.35
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While our students opened up during interviews, they often explained that they did not tell others about their troubles. Ian Williams never told his academic adviser what it meant to him to receive additional scholarship support—he never revealed that it meant he could finally eat every day. Tyler Olson did not reveal his struggles with alcohol to a counselor, partly because he was not sure they were struggles at all. Sophie Schmidt never cried in front of a professor when she was depressed; she was embarrassed to feel so desperate.
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“Without a home and without meals, I felt like an impostor amongst my brilliant peers. I was shamefully worrying about food, and shamefully staring at the clock to make it out of class in time to get in line for the local shelter when I should have been giving my undivided attention to the lecturer.”37
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Even adults need support. And sometimes, even adults are afraid to ask.
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Many children are motivated to pursue college at least in part because it will please their parents, bring recognition to the family, or set a good example for younger siblings.
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I can relate.
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While the wealth of the bottom 90 percent has remained stagnant, costs have grown.
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The average family in the other 90 percent saves nothing.8
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Less than half of all children under eighteen in the United States are growing up in families with two heterosexual parents in a first marriage, compared with more than 70 percent in the 1960s.10
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While men still outearn women with the same level of education, women get a bigger boost in their wages from obtaining a college degree—a
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Economic changes have hit African American and Hispanic families particularly hard.
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These disparities—in income and wealth, family structure, and educational attainment—mean that the act of paying for college feels very different for lower-income and moderate-income families than it does for their wealthier counterparts.
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“eustress,” the feeling you get when overcome with the excitement and anticipation of a desired outcome.
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Each time I met with him, Norbert talked about his mother and the consistently positive encouragement she provided him.
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As Norbert’s story illustrates, even when there is little money to be had, low-and moderate-income families support their children in other ways not always recognized by the system.
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The financial aid system—and college more generally—fails to recognize the complexity and interdependence of families.
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These are parents who tend to have financial resources, discretionary time, and social networks that help them exert influence. College administrators may find these parents irritating, but they are fundamentally respected as people with power.23
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Low-income parents are, in contrast, framed quite differently. They are parents without: people who do not, cannot, or will not provide their children with what college requires.24
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Family members of our students provided many types of help. Most (56%) helped to buy groceries or other food, and 55 percent also covered cell phone bills (see table 15). More than half of students had assistance with health insurance, but just four in ten received help with car insurance. Barely one-quarter of our students could depend on their parents for help with paying for housing or related expenses, and, as expected, few received help with tuition.
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Growing up poor, the idea that family members would help each other out as needed was a given in Ian’s home.
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For Ian’s family, sharing resources was a matter of survival. When he became a college student, the practice continued. Ian shared the limited funds he had—obtained from grants, loans, and work—with his mother and brothers.
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Even though sharing money meant that Ian himself had fewer resources for college, he explained that he benefited emotionally from this exchange: “It’s a lot of relief that comes off my chest. . . . It’s an unexplainable feeling. I’m in the position to help my family out now. . . . I know the only reason I’m in the position that I’m in right now is because of my family. . . . [That’s] why I always relate back to my history. The things they did for me and everything—that’s what makes me want to do more for them. That’s what pushes me through college so I can help them out a lot.” Ian continued, articulating the ways in which his family made college possible for him and therefore why sharing resources with them while he pursued his degree made sense.
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Ian surprised us with his openness about sharing money with his family as a college student, but he was not alone. About one in three students in our study reported that interdependence of resources was a facet of their lives. For them, family financial reciprocity was a way of life before, during, and likely after college. It shaped how they went to college and why they went, and it affected their chances of finishing school.
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As one of her participants explained, reciprocal exchanges are essential for survival, given limited resources: “You have to have help from everybody and anybody, so don’t turn no one down when they come round for help.”27 Reciprocity is a collective adaptation to poverty—in other words, the basic belief that “people should help one another” is not an effect of a culture of poverty but, rather, a characteristic, rational response to poverty. This finding is echoed in the work of economists, who have found similar patterns of intrafamily resource transfers, typically called remittances, moving into, between, and among poor communities around the world.28
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More than one-third of our students somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement that while in college “I feel obligated to support my family financially.” They spoke of a cycle: student helps family, family sometimes helps student, and even in the absence of that help, the student helps the family again. They draw on resources from work, from loans, and from grants to do whatever they can to assist.
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Thus, for many such college students, providing support to their family is a continuation of roles they assumed earlier in life.
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Eleven percent of students at universities reported on surveys that they gave their families at least fifty dollars per month, and 14 percent also reported spending at least ten hours per week taking care of an older family member or a younger sibling.
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His family regularly held meetings where they discussed finances and planned how bills would be paid:
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even after taking into account demographics and other factors, providing regular cash transfers to parents more than doubled the odds that a student would also work more than twenty hours per week during the first year of college and reduced by 7 percent the odds that a student would reenroll for a second year of college.41
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Most families, however, are likely to adopt a combination of cost-reduction approaches, such as opting to go to school in state and living at home or with relatives (43%).”43 But this advice should be qualified—there is evidence that living at home reduces the odds of becoming part of campus life, and it may even reduce the chances of graduation.44
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The assumption that living at home is less expensive is so ingrained in our imaginations that many colleges and universities budget very little to support the living expenses of financial aid recipients living with their parents.
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Tyler was not alone in feeling frustrated by his father’s inability to support him.
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For nine of the fifty students we interviewed, no financial support was available because the children were estranged from family members with resources.
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student contributions to their families seem rooted in implicit understandings.
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There is a specific term used by policymakers and financial aid officers—and even some advocates—when it comes to talking about money that is used elsewhere. It is spent on “noneducational expenses,” they say, and this is considered misuse, even fraud.50
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These conditions practically drive aid recipients to draw on that aid to help their families—even though doing this means they are viewed as frauds and cheats who are undeserving of support.
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Our evidence suggests that the financial aid eligibility and distribution system doesn’t take into account the realities of many low-income families. The system fails to adequately recognize families’ struggles with poverty or near-poverty status, income volatility, and the lack of available support from social programs.
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While financial aid demands an expected family contribution from all but the very poorest families, parents are frequently unable to make that contribution. This creates tension between children and parents that recurs throughout college, as aid reapplication occurs annually, creating friction every academic year. It also breeds resentment and mistrust of financial aid, a policy intended to help.
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Contributing time or money—or both—to their families may be done out of love, in response to pressure, or out of a sense of reciprocal obligation and may make students feel proud or resentful, appreciated or exploited. Regardless, these contributions can be counterproductive to their educational goals.
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Willingness to make these sacrifices is again more prevalent among lower-income families. Perhaps most tellingly, 34 percent of these families say that attending college is worth it for the experience, despite uncertainty about future earnings. Just 19 percent of middle-and upper-income families say the same.52
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Academically Adrift, an influential longitudinal study by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, suggests that a substantial number of students learn relatively little during college.
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The vision of students drifting aimlessly through higher education is, in other words, so pervasive that we should simply accept it and move on.5
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In higher education, academics and economics are often thought of as separate and distinct.
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We found that academics were a central focus of students’ time in college. They cared a great deal about learning the material needed to earn degrees and win jobs that would improve their economic standing and those of their families. But how they went about pursuing that learning was shaped by the economic circumstances of their existence.
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Clearly these writers and researchers haven’t talked to the students in our study who struggled each and every semester to make ends meet. They have no empirical data with which to differentiate the behavior of Pell recipients from those of other students. In fact, the authors of Academically Adrift did not collect any information on students’ family income or their financial aid, so they did not know who was receiving financial aid and who wasn’t.11 For policymakers considering the future of higher education, this should be a red flag.
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For students from low-income families, getting ahead in life is a main reason for attending college. Nearly 70 percent of our students cited a love of learning as a “very” or “extremely” important factor in their decision to pursue postsecondary education. Ninety-four percent believed that education would pay off in the future, and 88 percent felt that how they did in college would affect their success over time.
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none of these studies explicitly examines the behavior of financial aid recipients, even though their results have been used to characterize that group.16
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Sophie’s thirty-hour-a-week work schedule affected her grades.
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Do the GPA requirements associated with financial aid really encourage students to move through school at a slower pace? An experimental analysis Peter Kinsley and I conducted suggests that this is indeed possible.19
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For students with first-semester GPAs below 2.0, there was a large and statistically significant reduction in the likelihood of taking fifteen or more credits in the second semester of the first year of college if they were offered the Wisconsin Scholars Grant.
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For students who were not at risk of failing to make satisfactory academic progress, there was no such impact.20 In other words, it seems that raising the financial stakes on low-income students may cause some of them to proceed more slowly through college, potentially lengthening their time to degree (and raising their total costs) over time.
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For low-income students in particular, efforts to prioritize school and learning may require spending time doing a variety of nonacademic activities to make college possible in the first place.
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How he did it is instructive.
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“What kinds of things do you do when you’re not in class?” Ian replied immediately: “Study. They told us every class is three hours [of studying] so I just study.”
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Ian enjoyed being in college. “I feel older now, like I’m doing something. When I was in high school I felt like I wasn’t really impressing my family or anything, but since I came to college I feel like I’m really impressive.”
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In other words, Ian built his life at school to counteract what could have been his life on the street.
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He was going to make it.
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It is clear that financial pressures can reduce the amount of time students spend on school. So if we give students more money, will they study more? The answer is not straightforward.
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found that a merit-based scholarship reduced the time undergraduates spent working and increased time spent on cultural activities and community service but had no effect on the amount of time students spent studying, relaxing, or doing other extracurricular activities.25 Most experimental studies of performance-based scholarships, however, report that additional aid has no impact on students’ employment.26
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They have to work, and for these students, it is especially difficult to get good grades, since they often need additional time—time they don’t have—for studying, meeting with professors, and tutoring. Without these supports, their grades suffer. But most students don’t understand this relationship between having a job and grades. They’ve never felt particularly successful in school, and they are accustomed to working, so they focus on earning enough to pay for college rather than studying.
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Students who attend college part time receive a partial Pell Grant that is exactly half the amount received by full-time students, based on the assumption that there is a linear relationship between college costs and number of hours enrolled. But in practice, the costs of attending college are not split in half when a student takes two courses (six credits) instead of four (twelve credits). While tuition varies linearly by the credit hour, other college costs do not.
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And in the third and fourth semesters I have to take an extra class not in the program just so I can get financial aid. So it’s like you take an extra class to get the financial aid but you’re still going backwards because you’re spending more money.”
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Chloe did not realize it, but she was in danger of failing to meet her college’s satisfactory academic progress requirements: a C average and completion of 67 percent or more of cumulative attempted credits. But Chloe was cornered. Dropping a class would lower the ratio of courses that Chloe had completed, and getting a bad grade in that class would lower her GPA. In other words, at that point in the semester Chloe was about to face academic and therefore financial consequences for having attempted college without sufficient funds. But she didn’t understand exactly what was happening. She simply knew that she was exhausted from working long hours trying to pay for college and not doing nearly as well as she had hoped. But it was not until the semester was over and she was preparing for the second term, having just taken out a loan to pay for tuition, that she learned the truth.
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Critically, she did not know what she could have done differently, given the high price of college and the limited financial aid she received. I was like, ok, I’m dismissed from this program, and I thought it was something I really wanted to do, and it just hit me hard. I was just crushed. I had my hopes set real high . . . it was kind of a relief, but then again it was pretty stressful. . . . It was like, “You know, I went through all of this work and I accomplished nothing. I failed.” It was kind of a little bit of both and it actually hit me pretty hard because I was just crushed. I was like, “Wow, I’m never going to get anywhere.” I’ve got, you know, pretty much no hope for the future.
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Chloe began waiting tables at the restaurant her father managed while she hunted for another job. In some ways, life as a so-called college dropout suited her better than the life she had experienced while in school.
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Her attempt to gain a degree had yielded Chloe little more than bad memories and monthly automatic loan payments.
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Many of the students in our study were surprised by the amount of work their college courses required.
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Nima felt that her mom’s job was grueling and that her mother looked older than her years. She was determined to make different choices. At the same time, she appreciated her parents, and wanted to do her duty at home.
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Money mattered to Nima and her family. The lack of available jobs in her city was one of the most important reasons why she attended college. She thought that college would help her get a good job. Her oldest brother pursued a degree in engineering, and the other brother a degree in nursing. “My brother says, we have to get a job, we just have to—he wants to graduate really fast so he can get a job and make her [their mom] cut down her hours.”
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they joke about it, they call it Garbage Design when they’re mad at me.” This lack of support affected how Nima saw herself and her work. She noted that being entrepreneurial was important to her success as an artist but found that her insecurities and anxieties kept her from showing her work to others. “I don’t feel like I’m talented. I just feel like I’m doing what my brother said, a hobby.
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Strong feeling of deprivation from her childhood lingered, leaving her feeling unsure of herself and her relationships with others, and she often wondered whether she was valued.
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but the only thing that is keeping me going is thinking that someday I can work for myself. All it will take is me putting in the time and effort. Around that time, Tyler stopped talking about business administration and a possible future in graduate school and started to consider enrolling in the army.
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Norbert Webster was in many ways destined to succeed in college from the moment he began. He did not need to work and/or take out loans, and he was able to live like students with far more resources—on campus, closely connected to other students, organizations, and faculty.
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Norbert made the most of this opportunity. For his first year, he opted to live in a residence hall for international students. He wanted to meet different kinds of people and felt that this was an important piece of the college experience, a piece that really engaged him. Referring to his high school, he said, “It is so small that you don’t get to meet different people, especially since everyone is Native American.
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His living experiences connected to his academic experiences. He felt like his schooling was paying off—it was teaching him something useful. The ability to live on campus made other types of connections possible for him as well. For example, he chose a roommate who was also Oneida, and who shared Norbert’s commitment to academics. “It’s really motivating for me because he [the roommate] says, ‘I’m going to the library for an hour,’ and then I’m like, ‘Well, you know what, I’ll go there for an hour, too,’ and I will knock an hour out reading or studying my notes.” His roommate also helped him keep the costs of attending college down by joining him for evenings playing Xbox in their room rather than going out to parties or bowling, since these things would cost additional money.
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Norbert attributed his success to his hard work, a message he wanted others from his community to understand.
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The freedom created by a stable financial situation enabled Norbert to devote himself to college life in ways that we rarely observed in other students. Sophie Schmidt, for example, was also well prepared for college in the academic sense, and she went to a university filled with opportunities. But the difficulties Sophie faced paying for school overshadowed each day, as she spent time worrying, stressed, and often in tears. Ian Williams focused on school but was unable to live on campus or participate in extracurricular activities the way that Norbert could, since he had to work and help his family. Chloe Johnson was just as eager as the others to learn the skills needed for the job she wanted, but she could not stay awake in class after working too late the day before. Norbert was unusual not because he cared about classes or studies but because he didn’t have to worry about having enough money to pay for school.
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More than three in four students attend colleges within fifty miles of their homes, continuing their relationships with families, neighbors, and nearby institutions as they pursue degrees.1 Proximity to home is an especially important factor in the college decisions of low-income and race/ethnic minority students.2
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Today Milwaukee is one of the poorest and most segregated cities in America. One-quarter of families live below the federal poverty level, nearly 27 percent of households are on food stamps, and over 36 percent of households take in $25,000 or less in annual income.5 The level of black-white segregation in Milwaukee is the second highest in the nation. Some consider the city one of the worst places in the country to live for African Americans.6
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Wisconsin has the largest educational disparities between African American and white students in the country, and its schools suspend African American students at the highest rate in the country.8
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As Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, noted: “When people are undereducated, impoverished, malnourished, un-or under-employed, or underpaid and working three jobs, their lives are diminished, as are their opportunities. As are the opportunities of their children.”12
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I don’t want to have to live paycheck to paycheck, struggling like I am now. I just want me and my daughter to be happy and not worrying about anything. I’ve got to do it for us. Alicia was determined. On her initial survey during the first few months of college, she said that there was no way she would drop out of college.
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“If I had more money, I wouldn’t have to work as much, and I could spend more time with my daughter.
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Like many other students who grew up in a persistently poor home, she was not sure she could get financial support from her family if she needed it, and she didn’t feel strongly that they encouraged her to stay in college. But they did help her with childcare.
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Between work, her responsibilities to her daughter, and the demands of other family members, there was too much going on for her to focus on school. She wished she could simplify the situation and have more time for class. She still wanted that master’s degree and now hoped that if she got it she would earn $55,000 a year. “Oh, I’m going to graduate—I don’t have a choice. There ain’t no stopping me,” she told us. Six months later, Alicia was still enrolled in college but had moved in with a man after her apartment was broken into while she was in class. She was now twenty years old. She still had difficulties with her mom, who came to visit from time to time and created “drama.” Her boyfriend made her feel safe and helped take care of her daughter, and she felt better equipped to focus on school. She had less financial aid than in the past, likely because of her work earnings, but she felt it was easier to make ends meet with a partner. That was the last time we saw Alicia. At the end of her sophomore year, she dropped out of touch. She was no longer enrolled in college and did not return phone calls. We were able to confirm through administrative records that though she spent eight semesters in school, by 2014 she had not earned a degree.
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Most students of color who attend public higher education in Wisconsin are enrolled at either UW–Milwaukee or MATC, the former of which enrolls almost 40 percent of all students of color in the entire UW System. In 2014–15 this meant it educated 2,176 African Americans (8% of its total enrollment). In contrast, its sister research institution, UW–Madison, enrolled just 961 African American students that year—just 2 percent of total enrollment.20
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But by the time our study students went to college in 2008, they paid about 60 percent of the costs via tuition.28 In other words, the public and private roles reversed, a trend reflected across the nation.
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This funding switch flies in the face of what we know about expected payoffs. The individual returns on higher education are more uncertain than ever because students are far from assured that they will complete a degree and are more likely to accumulate debt in the attempt.
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MATC and UW–Milwaukee together are home to 21 percent of all financial aid recipients. The result is de facto economic segregation in higher education. Many familiar with Wisconsin higher education readily acknowledge that UW–Milwaukee has long been treated as a stepchild in the UW System.29
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Today, the two research institutions are part of the same system but they are vastly different. Not only does the state appropriate more than twice as much per full-time equivalent student for UW–Madison than it does for UW–Milwaukee, but the institutions serve divergent populations.
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More than 33 percent of new freshman at UW–Milwaukee are students of color, while at UW–Madison, this figure is less than 10 percent.32 At UW–Milwaukee, around 1,800 first-year students need math remediation each year, compared to fewer than fifty at UW–Madison.33
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Since Milwaukee students, on average, had fewer financial resources, it seems unlikely that these differences were due to less need for aid. Rather, the differences are likely attributable to the disparities in work-study allocations from the federal government, discussed in chapter
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He also explained how useful the financial aid administrators were in interpreting the aid rules and regulations. “They are really helpful. . . . They get everything straightened out. They tell you what exactly you need, what you need to do, or they tell you: ‘Go do it online, go to the library and just come back and see me.’ So every time I’ve gone there it’s been, ‘Do this, this, and this. Ok you’re done.
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“Money has a lot to do with stress,” he said, “You’re worried about it—that’s a lot of money, I don’t know if I can pay for this. People obviously start thinking, should I just stop going to school? This is a lot of money I’m paying for classes, I shouldn’t be here, and I’m going to go to work somewhere to make money.”
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Despite this instability, José persisted in school because he was confident that over the long-term joining the police department would help his family. “If I can get ahead, I can help them out.
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He planned on going back to school to pursue a bachelor’s degree if he didn’t find a steady job within two years. He would need to finish that degree in no more than six semesters, since he was already half way to using up his lifetime Pell Grant allotment.46
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Didn't know it was limited to 12 semesters.
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Our data complement his and suggest that the advising needs to go further, to help students seeking degrees as they also traverse the many broken institutions in the city. Too often, researchers trying to understand problems in higher education fail to recognize that challenges created by the health and human services systems and the criminal justice system also affect college graduation rates.
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While researchers focus on what is happening inside school, critical parts of the undergraduate experience—parts that determine the success or failure of many students—occur outside.
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This price was only manageable for Anne because she lived at home, she and her mother did not pay for housing, and she received food stamps as well as support from the local energy company to cover the electric bill.
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She had a strong, positive relationship with her mother and felt that she received a great deal of emotional support from her.
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The manager of the apartment building where she lived informed her that by enrolling in college full time, she had violated the terms of the family’s subsidized housing. “The management says that if you’re living at home and you’re in college, you’re not allowed to enroll full time. So I had to switch [to part time].” Anne did not know what policy dictated this situation, but thought it might have to do with perceptions of undergraduate behavior. “I guess they’re saying that they think if you’re in college you might try and turn it into a dormitory, throwing parties or getting out of control. I don’t really understand it. But if I didn’t agree to go part time we would have to move.
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It became increasingly difficult for Anne and her mom to make ends meet.
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She continued to try to focus on school: “I’m just keep trying to bring my GPA up higher each semester and stay focused, working harder.” But then midway through her second year of college her mom grew very ill and went into the hospital. “It was all at once, everything was coming at me, and I didn’t know what to do,”
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On a survey she indicated that she often felt blue and bothered by things that didn’t used to bother her. She was depressed and lonely. Yet she was trying to make things work at school. In the midst of these difficulties, she reassessed the likelihood that she would complete the bachelor’s degree and decided that it was now “extremely likely.”
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While her mom was in the hospital Anne took an exam she had not studied for, having been with her mom all night before. “I wanted to tell him [the professor] but I just didn’t. I didn’t want people to keep feeling sorry for me. It was a thing for myself—to not really want to put it out there. . . . So I just took the exam and went back to the hospital and that was it.”
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Many researchers have found that low-income people are subject to rules that are not explained to them and that are often inconsistent.49
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She seemed on track with school, and administrative records indicate that she remained continuously enrolled until spring 2014. But then she left, without a degree in hand. After six years of attending college we don’t know why she gave up.
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But most importantly, students in Milwaukee who left college without a credential were much more likely to be in debt (66% vs. 47% elsewhere) and held on average $1,500 more debt (from the first year of college) than their peers in the rest of the state. They carried these incomplete college experiences and compromised financial circumstances back into a community already full of financial hardship.
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Norbert attributed his relatively smooth path through school to his mom and to his tribe.
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But very few Native Americans benefit from scholarships like the Oneida’s—the vast majority of tribes lack the resources.
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In Norbert’s case, to borrow a phrase, it took a village. And the village will benefit.2
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Six years after beginning college, just one in two of the students in the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study had graduated with a credential of any kind (table 20).3
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Fifteen percent of students in the study (including 30% of those at two-year colleges) completed a sub-baccalaureate credential such as a certificate or an associate degree within three years,
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To make ends meet, Ian borrowed the maximum federal loans available ($5,500) for his first year, lived at home, worked, and sometimes made do without enough to eat. While his community was unable to offer him scholarships, it did provide him with a strong motivation to push forward and succeed at school.
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Ian was one of just a handful of students we came across who had to pay less, rather than more,
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Ian graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He then went on to complete a master’s degree in the same field and is now gainfully employed in the Milwaukee area. He estimates that he owes about $30,000 in student debt from his undergraduate years, and a great deal more from his graduate work. But he is finally able to live in his own apartment and speaks with great pride about his accomplishments.
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Of the 216 who began college full time in 2008, less than one in three earned any credential by 2014. Twenty-four percent finished a bachelor’s degree during that time. Twenty-six percent were still enrolled, working on their degrees. Forty-two percent had no degree or certificate, were no longer enrolled, and were in debt.
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Sophie Schmidt finished college in four years at one of the state’s best public universities. That fact alone would mark her in most studies as an unquestionable success. But her undergraduate experience left scars. She agonized over money daily and she ended up disconnected from, and angry with, her family. Of all of the students we interviewed, Sophie incurred the most debt, borrowing more than $13,000 for the first year of college alone.4
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Nima Chaudhary was among the students who took longer than anticipated to finish her degree. In May 2011, three years after entering technical college, Nima graduated with a degree in graphic design. On the same day, her brother graduated from a different university with a degree in nursing. She and her family attended his ceremony rather than hers. Despite her accomplishments, her family’s need for money hung over her college choices: I feel like my dad is waiting for me to fail. . . . He thinks graphic design is not worth it.
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Two years passed, and Nima was working in a hospital cafeteria, having been employed at six different part-time jobs since college, none in art. She maintained a website and a Facebook page for her art and continued to actively seek employment.
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This is especially sad.
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He’d hit his lifetime Pell Grant limit, a limit set by a law passed by President Obama three years after Tyler had first started school.
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While many researchers recruit students for interviews in ways that produce a more advantaged sample (e.g., by relying on people to take multiple actions to volunteer, producing samples of especially motivated people seeking help), we had attempted to do the opposite. We asked students if they were willing to participate in interviews on a survey, and almost half of all students volunteered. We knew this question of interest might introduce a form of selection bias, so we then sorted all the students who had volunteered into groups based on where they were enrolled, and sampled among those volunteers at each institution based on their gender and race/ethnicity. Whenever there was more than one volunteer available, we chose at random. We are therefore able to compare the graduation rates of students we interviewed with very comparable students whom we did not interview, and even that analysis suggests higher graduation rates. Does this mean that the students we interviewed had preexisting advantages that escaped our initial efforts at randomization? Perhaps. But it is also possible that simply sitting down with someone for an interview for an hour or two a few times a year was an intervention that increased their chances of completing a degree.
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Research methods and what an interesting idea.
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Very few people who study or work with college students have the opportunity to get to know them after they leave college, especially if they leave without a degree. We wonder what happened, why they departed, and what they are doing now. Without this information, their stories are incomplete and often misunderstood. This is why it was so important that we followed these young adults wherever they went, continuing to learn from them whether or not they stayed in school.
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I’d pretty much hit rock bottom, and there was nowhere to go but up. The bottom is scary and you just don’t feel like you’re really worth anything, and you’re trying to get back on your feet. You just beat yourself up. I went to interviews and kept getting shot down and shot down and shot down, and I just kept taking it personally. It kinda makes you feel like you’re not good enough.
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Surprised to hear Chloe decry the flexibility of college life that she had initially prized when college began,
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“The navy pays for college and you can take courses while serving your time, and seeing places I don’t think I would otherwise. I’ll have job security for the next four years, and as long as I’m in the navy I will never have to pay rent, electric bills, etc. I’ll only have to pay for my cell phone, car, and student loan, and I can have my loan and car paid off easily in my first eight months of service.” She talked about taking psychology classes online and planned to get a laptop so she could take online courses while enlisted.
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One year after enlisting, Chloe told me that she felt like a success in her new life.
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My research team was eager to find out how these grants would affect graduation rates. Since the fund used a lottery to select its grantees among eligible students, all of whom had financial need and received the Pell Grant, we were able to track them along with a group matched for comparison purposes. By comparing their outcomes, we could know with a great deal of certainty what impact the fund’s grant had on academic outcomes and student debt.
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Some of those students may have been receiving small Pell Grants, and a modest rise in family income slid them over the “Pell cliff,” which meant all their Pell-contingent aid disappeared.
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(continued full-time enrollment, Pell eligibility, satisfactory academic progress) and students at the two-year colleges had a great deal of trouble with these,
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For students beginning at universities, the WSG did not immediately change their academic trajectories. Eighty-one percent of the comparison group enrolled for a second year of college, as did just over 83 percent of the WSG group. Those small differences could be due to chance. Students who were offered the grant did spend a bit less time trying to earn money in the second year of college, but over three years they did not complete more credits. However, as figure 15 shows, the WSG increased the on-time bachelor’s degree completion rate by 28 percent, pushing it from about 16 percent to 21 percent. Moreover, the WSG also reduced students’ debt by just under $3,200 for their first three years of college.
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Awesome to quantify the rise.
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Furthermore, it made a difference if the offer of an additional $3,500 in grant aid actually translated into funds that could be used to reduce work hours or help with other college costs, as opposed to simply reducing debt for loans already received.
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Second-year college attendance was substantially enhanced when the WSG put money into students’ hands, as opposed to reducing their debt.
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Among students who faced at least $3,500 in unmet need before the WSG was allocated (usually because they did not take loans), the grant boosted retention rates by an additional 11.5 percentage points, for a total impact of 14.7 percentage points.
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The WSG was less effective at promoting retention and degree completion for the two-year college students (fig. 16).
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The most important lesson this experiment taught us is that financial aid is not money. Money clearly matters a great deal to how students experience college and whether they complete degrees.
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They do need more resources, and when students receive them, they are helped. But, unlike cash gifts or wages, the grants and loans that make up financial aid include complex rules, procedures, and requirements. If we want to lower the price to help people focus on school and complete their degrees on time, then financial aid as it is now designed may not be the best approach.
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For fifteen years, I have listened to financial aid administrators, deans of students, student affairs practitioners, and college presidents describe the problems of undergraduates on their campuses. They talk about their personal experiences of college and those of their friends to craft a picture of struggle met with fortitude, success gained through hard work, and the achievement of what looked impossible. In their day, college looked affordable—and in their eyes, it can look affordable still. The people who tell me these stories have genuine empathy for students.
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But fundamentally, at some basic level, they tend to agree that the system itself is fine—it can work, if only students work it. If today’s students only had a certain moral fiber, like the students of yesteryear, they would be fine.
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middle class. And it’s hard to watch your daughter’s college roommate receive a Pell Grant while your child is offered only loans.
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At the same time, it is out of reach for middle-class families as well
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When nearly 75 percent of American families find college unaffordable, and the means-tested financial aid system fails to do its job even for the poorest, it is time for a change.
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I have made the case, in this book, that these assumptions don’t hold. Why, then, do so many people believe our current system of financial aid is working well for those with the most need?
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The Pell Grant is targeted but it can’t promise that enough state appropriations will go to the institutions serving low-income students and it does nothing to keep college costs in check.
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The result is that even after taking all grants into account, Pell recipients face a net price of more than $8,000 per year—at the nation’s least expensive option, the public community college.
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A huge amount.
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The second reason that some people believe that college—especially community college—is already free has to do with the technical jargon used in the financial aid system today. Tuition and fees are called “direct educational expenses” while everything else, including food, rent, gas money, and books, is called “indirect” or “noneducational.”
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Language is powerful, and it has had consequences: it is easy to dismiss things that are “indirect” as optional. Yet covering those expenses is essential for full participation in college. Paying tuition allows students to go to class, but they will fail if they have no books, no pencils, no gas money to get school, and no food in their stomachs.
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Language is so powerful.
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In fact, by helping people from low-income families move up the economic ladder via college attainment, we greatly reduce the likelihood they will need social welfare programs in the future.
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Reiterating the myth that college is affordable perpetuates inequality.
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Relying on standard aid numbers, which frequently overestimate a family’s ability to pay and underestimate the true cost of attendance, provides a false sense of assurance that a full aid package (such as that offered by well-endowed private schools) truly takes money off the table for some students. It also encourages educators and policymakers to think that students’ financial situations are not affecting their academic performance.
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This leads to the final reason why so many insist that college is affordable, despite abundant evidence to the contrary: it is politically useful. Decades ago, sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward noted that welfare benefits provided just enough assistance to gain the acquiescence of the poor even though it failed to afford them a decent life.5 Today, the financial aid system serves the same function. It allows liberals to feel good and the poor to feel indebted, while at the same time providing a scapegoat for conservatives to blame. The problems facing public higher education, we learn, are not a function of too few resources but, rather, the fault of those who use the resources.
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Dang Sara, bringing the big guns here.
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lack of income should not keep you from attending college,
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Today, nine of every ten students that Senator Pell’s program supports graduate from college with debt, with an average of over $30,000 per student.6
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College has a price and is not free today for a reason: because higher education in the United States is broadly considered a privilege and not a right.
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the privileged class is largely determining the policies concerning college access.
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But college is now essential, and unfortunately there are no alternatives. If you cannot buy a home, you rent. If you cannot buy a car, you ride a bike or walk. But if you cannot attend college, you’re lost. You are systematically locked out of nearly every decent-paying job opportunity, every safe neighborhood, and every opportunity to create safe futures for your children.
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A cascading effect.
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It is not that America lacks the resources or know-how to make college universally affordable—it is that we have strong incentives to maintain the status quo.
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We should not fool ourselves—making college affordable won’t end inequality in America. But it will increase the odds that people will finish the college degrees they start and eliminate the debt that they carry forward. It will not end inequality, but it will reduce poverty, and increase the ability of poor young adults to do better than their parents.
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Education has benefits that go far beyond economics. They are not as easy to measure as wage returns, so it can be easy to dismiss these public benefits. But they exist.11
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Time after time, the failure to complete college does not reflect intellectual inability but, rather, an inability to pay.
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When college does not work out because the money isn’t there, families and communities view the results as a powerful warning sign about the broken promises of public education in this country.
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But rather than viewing this increased spending as a positive step toward maintaining support for college access during a time of national economic distress, many in Washington, DC, began to question whether grants were an effective way to boost college attainment. Legislators, policy analysts, and newspaper articles began to brand Pell recipients as unmotivated, undeserving, and fraudulent, even though there was little evidence that widespread abuse existed.13 This shoddy treatment of a public program that is designed to help poor people is not uncommon.14 Such targeted programs only appear to garner political support when they are seen as rewarding hard work or promoting opportunity, and critics of the Pell frequently question both.15
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Student debt should not be at the center of this debate. Debt is the symptom, not the disease—the real problem is that college is unaffordable.
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The lesson from today’s debt crisis is that we have to do better for tomorrow.
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The attack on loans is fundamentally an attack on the accessibility of today’s system and must be understood as such.16
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There are things we can do today to shore up Financial Aid 1.0, and there are other steps we can take to reduce college costs. But ultimately, we have to build a new system—a Financial Aid 2.0 that is based on accessible and affordable high-quality public higher education.
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Rather than offering more financial aid to keep up with rising prices, this future system should start by making the first few years of college or the initial degree free to all, as a public good.
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price of attendance.
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estimated financial contribution.
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Moreover, if a parent subsidizes the student’s living expenses by allowing her to live at home, that should count toward the estimated family contribution rather than contributing to a reduction in the price of attendance.
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Simply beginning the title of a grant with “Federal Pell
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There should be a separate column that explains the source of funds, and government dollars should say “taxpayer-supported federal grant.”17
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The conflicts and complexity created by attaching different requirements to different forms of aid must be made clearer to students, their academic advisers, and their financial aid administrators.
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We should be giving students more information earlier.
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Early notification that aid is available may help some young people begin to think about college in concrete terms and take steps to prepare academically.
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“tuition guarantees” that lock in the rate for students for the duration of their degree, or at least for four years,
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Flatlining tuition does not prevent the total price from rising,
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States should work with public colleges and universities to develop budgets that allow an entering student to have a road map of what the real price of attendance will be over the next four years. Projected tuition increases
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The fraction of students who meet satisfactory academic progress standards should be published, and this information should be provided in the aid package distributed to students, along with clear explanations of the consequences of falling short.
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Information about the price of attending college and the grants available to offset that price should be clearly separated from information about how students might cover the remaining price.
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Beyond the current list of loans and work-study and educational tax credits, students should be told about other social benefits programs that students and their families may qualify for. These programs include food assistance, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, better known as food stamps) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (called WIC). There are also important noneducational tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
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Yes yes yes.
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“The issues and needs that public benefits aim to address do not occur in isolation, and individuals may require several types of non-academic supports to help them stay in college and earn a credential.”
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Students clearly need better information to help them make more informed decisions and identify existing resources.
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Too many students are dropping out of college because they cannot cover their rent, utilities, childcare, gas, or other critical basic needs. Emergency aid programs are an especially promising approach for retaining more students in higher education. These programs make money available for students’ immediate needs far more flexibly than the financial aid system can.
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It is possible, we know, because it is being done now. Rigorous evaluations of these efforts and properly implemented efforts to scale them are needed.26
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The current disconnect between higher education policy and social policies aimed at helping poor, working, and middle-class families harms students. These policies must be aligned and coordinated.
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Hunger is real problem for too many college students.29 College enrollment should count toward the work requirement associated with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Just counting work-study is not enough since only a small percentage of students receive this benefit.
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The National School Lunch Program was introduced to K–12 education in 1946 because policymakers were concerned that students who were hungry could not learn.31 The students who benefit from access to meals when in high school move onto college and find themselves stuck. The students who were hungry in high school are hungry in college.
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The rules and regulations associated with financial aid need to be adjusted to promote degree completion rather than encouraging students to ration money.
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We know education is an investment that pays tremendous dividends for government. We also know that situations of financial scarcity and pressure reduce the likelihood of graduation.
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The calculation of living costs for students living off campus should be removed from institutional responsibilities. Inaccurate estimates do real harm, and financial aid offices are already strapped for time. Standardizing living costs calculations will help students and families make better college decisions and ease colleges’ reporting obligations. Congress should amend U.S. Code § 1087(II)
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We need to make it possible for students to work their way through college.
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The Federal Work-Study Program is in desperate need of an overhaul.
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States should develop their own programs to complement the federal effort.
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It is time to rethink how states support higher education.
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Nineteen studies of student aid policies by the Education Policy Center (located at the University of Alabama) over the past five years found that for many rural states, including the Deep South, the Pell Grant is, for all intents and purposes, the de facto state student aid program.41
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One way the federal government might be able to help is by establishing a maintenance-of-effort requirement. This would allow federal funds to be used only to supplement state funding rather than supplanting existing state monies.
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Improving the sufficiency and fairness of state allocations for higher education will mean shedding more light on within-state funding distributions.
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If the goal of financial aid policy is to break the link between family income and college attainment, several areas of current spending should be revisited. The first is “non-need-based grant aid” or so-called merit aid.
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Spending on non-need-based aid perpetuates inequality.
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Education pays substantial dividends, both for individuals and families, as well as for communities.
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Higher education is valuable because it improves the social fabric in literally immeasurable ways.
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The effects of higher education accrue across generations, not merely within cohorts. We have long understood this, building national prosperity in the twentieth century by making high school free. Yes, individuals reap economic benefits from attending high school, and wealthy kids attending good public schools reap many more benefits than low-income kids attending crummy ones. But we don’t insist that individuals pay their way for high school because we recognize how important it is that everyone has an opportunity to finish high school. We do our best to ensure that money does not get in the way.
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That world is gone. Young people from all families and older workers in need of new skills want to attend college, and they plan on enrolling, even if it means ending up with debt and no degree, at risk of defaulting on loans.55 Lower-income individuals, people of color, and women know that there’s no economic security in their futures without at least some sort of college credential. Research confirms this: Ron Haskins has called a college education a “powerful” intervention like no other.56
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Means-tested financial aid, administered via a massive bureaucracy, leaves out the very poorest—who cannot navigate the system—and squeezes the middle class, who are offered only loans.59
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Of course, a universal, free system will have progressive effects—tearing down the price and bureaucratic barriers will matter most to the poorest people, who have made very little progress accessing college under the current system. But the benefits will be broadly shared.
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Completion rates for working-and middle-class students will rise as their costs of college are more fully covered.61 Accreditation reform and greater accountability will accompany this shift to ensure quality and a high return on public investment. Everyone will benefit from a better-educated, more productive American workforce.
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When the movement for free public high school began in the 1800s, many opposed it, calling it “a contrivance of the rich to rob the poor.”63 They were wrong—when high school became free, families from all walks of life came to get educated.64 Some argue that the United States can’t afford to make college free. The truth is, we can’t afford not to.
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Many students start at four-year institutions, last four semesters, and leave with nothing in hand. It is important that these institutions reward that effort with an associate degree and that we establish that degree as the new “first degree.”
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Then we can work on making the first degree free at any public college or university.67 We need to work toward the time when “public colleges and universities” have the same meaning as public K–12 schools, or public parks, or public roads: goods paid for by all, intended for universal free use by all who wish to use them for their intended purposes.
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In fact, today most states are not cutting public higher education.72 They are reinvesting. That is because there is a substantial public benefit to high rates of college attendance.
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Twelve years of education does not go as far as it once did, and after a century of technological advancements and upskilling, it is reasonable to expect that some post–high school education is beneficial.
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A year or two of college credits without a degree means not only wasted time but also significant debt. Those who are being left behind today are the people who decide that risk is too great. The main barrier to college entry is price. By eliminating the price of admission, we can send a powerful message: there is no harm in trying. And for people who do try, like Chloe Johnson, by eliminating their need to work while in college, we improve their chances of success. If they don’t make it, very little harm to students will be done—they can look back and assess what happened, but they will not be doing it while paying monthly bills to a debt collection agency for that failure.
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That is the main goal—to overcome the barriers created by a confusing, untrustworthy system and send a resounding message
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According to the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, 15,830 students from the graduating high school class of 2015 were using Tennessee Promise benefits in fall 2015, the first year of implementation. The number of students attending community college right after high school jumped 14 percent in a single year, and Tennessee led the nation in the rate of FAFSA completion.77
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As of the time of this writing, dozens of states and localities across the nation are weighing the possibility of offering at least some version of a free college program. The list includes New York, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Chicago, California, Tulsa, and Arizona.79
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wisely recognizing that some public colleges still do not fully address the needs of students of color.81
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Simplifying the FAFSA is a technocratic fix, not a transformative one—it won’t bring new money to the table.
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That is why it is time for a national conversation about what it means to provide high-quality thirteenth and fourteenth years of public education to everyone and how we are going pay for it. New taxes are an option—but we can also simply stop spending on investments that aren’t paying off. Estimates vary, but many indicate that the costs are no more than $70–$100 billion—we could go a long way toward covering these costs by ending subsidies to for-profit universities and tax credits that are demonstrably ineffective.86
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Sixty percent of Americans aged twenty-five to sixty-four do not hold a college credential. But 22 percent of them—32.6 million Americans—have tried to get one.87
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Money matters. Lack of financial resources is keeping students from succeeding. Suggesting that low-income students merely need to learn how to live more frugally is usually a misplaced recommendation—and an offensive one, to boot. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.”89
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Researchers need to do their part to help illuminate how and why price is a barrier to education.
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To help ensure that this work gets done, I recently founded the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, an applied research shop staffed by talented researchers committed to rigorous studies that can be directly translated into action. This sort of research, conducted in communities across the nation, must inform public policies if we are to find better ways forward.
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The new economics of college is undermining the fundamental connection between education and democracy that has helped our nation thrive.
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With economic inequality on the rise, and low-income and middle-class Americans under pressure, this generation must meet the challenge of making one of the best ways out of poverty and into the middle class—a college education—affordable for all.