Another week means yet another book review, and this one is about yet another incredible read. Not all of them will positive, I swear – the next review will be for a book I found so bad, and so invested in faulty logic, I couldn’t even finish it (and I’m not one to not finish a book). But more on that next week – for now, on to the good book review!
Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream
The University of Chicago Press © 2016
Chances are, similar to the last book I reviewed (Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy), that if you haven’t read Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s book yet, you have likely heard of it. Both her and Dr. McMillan Cottom (author of Lower Ed) were guests on The Late Show with Trevor Noah this past year, signaling an important call for scholars to continue writing critical texts in publicly accessible ways. Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s book does everything educators want widely read texts to do: it is data rich, full of compelling individual narratives, and provides clear vision for what needs to happen on federal, state, and local levels in order to make postsecondary education accessible for all.
Of the many impressive aspects of Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s book is the six-year undertaking of the study it details. The longitudinal mixed methods study was incredibly comprehensive, and the sheer volume of data Dr. Goldrick-Rab and her research team generated was powerful, to say the least. Unlike some texts that are chock full of data, however, Dr. Goldrick-Rab has a penchant for story telling, especially through the narratives of the six student participants she highlighted throughout the book. These students’ stories were studded amongst tables, charts, critiques of federal policy, and the ongoing realities of the difference between the cost and price of college going.
As Goldrick-Rab discussed in her book, college costs more than the sticker price. Beyond tuition, living expenses, and the thresholds at which working part-time or full-time jobs forecloses opportunities for low-income students to tap into the necessary aid to cover all of these costs makes going to/completing college incredibly difficult. For example, Goldrick-Rab discusses how employment shifts one’s Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) on the annual FAFSA forms students need to submit to be eligible for federal student aid. Thus, while working is necessary to cover living expenses, it may actually make college all the more expensive, and thus, make gaining a college degree all the more difficult.
Another important aspect of Goldrick-Rab’s book is her connecting the inverse relationship between the cost of college and the realization of college as a public good. In essence, Goldrick-Rab uses the data she and her research team collected to discuss financial aid and the rising cost of college as an indicator of just how far we are from the rhetoric of postsecondary education as a societal good. When read alongside Dr. McMillan Cottom’s book, then, one gets a 360-degree view of how the notion of postsecondary education is heavily steeped in the concept of rugged individualism that marks the neoliberal logic on which the new economy is based. Even though policymakers discuss college as a way to “level the playing field,” Goldrick-Rab’s book provides a powerful compendium of data and story telling that reinforce quite the opposite. In fact, Goldrick-Rab’s book suggests that far from leveling the playing field, the way postsecondary education is framed in the United States, and the way college costs continue to get transferred to students themselves, actually means that college is increasing the wealth disparities present in U.S. society.
Although Goldrick-Rab’s book is a page-turner (literally, there were multiple nights when I was reading and just didn’t want to stop), the chapter where she focuses in on the city of Milwaukee (Chapter 8: City of Broken Dreams) is possibly the most illustrative of all she discusses throughout the text. The chapter becomes all the more powerful when one realizes there are many Milwaukees throughout the country…and their stories in relation to the cost of college may very well mirror what is happening there, as well.
In a word, Goldrick-Rab’s book is complete. She moves between food insecurity, poverty, the pulls and presses of family expectation, the reality of increasing tuition, how focusing on tuition masks the ways fees and living expenses hamper low-income students’ desires to go to and complete college, and the student narratives she highlights throughout the book. Hers is more than a book of tables and charts, however, and tells an incredibly compelling story of what need to change for us to live our espoused philosophical values of education as a public good.
There is a lot to gain from this book, most notably a deeper understanding of financial aid and the costs of college. This is no small feat, especially as much of this information, and these processes, are vague. For educators who believe in college accessibility, Goldrick-Rab’s text elucidates the complexity of the desire for universal education. However, rather than just telling of the difficulty of realizing this goal, her book provides a clarion call for educators. Goldrick-Rab details ways educators can be active in creating the postsecondary education system we want and need in the United States. Her solution-focused approach is refreshing, and in so doing, she establishes a base of critical hope upon which we as educators must continue to build our practice.
Additionally, Goldrick-Rab’s book has taught me the importance of patience. It took Goldrick-Rab and her research team six years to collect and analyze data for this study. This doesn’t even take into account the amount of time and labor it took to write her book, or produce the various papers and presentations that come from the research data. In a field that pushes for us to do more better faster, Goldrick-Rab’s book reminds me of the power that can come from slowing down, being patient, and investing in a project. More importantly, it reminds me what good can come from investing in the people who make up the project. As someone who has done long-term ethnographic work, I understand this on an intellectual level…and yet, as someone who has found it hard to find the time to keep doing the long-term ethnographic work I want to do, this text was a critical reminder of the absolute need for this work. The importance of slow research, of patient approaches, and of dedicating ourselves to being alongside those with whom we are researching is massively important. If more educators did this—practitioners and researchers alike—it may take us a bit more time to get to our results, but oh how much more powerful and provocative they could be.
Now, I need to provide a caveat here, because I don’t want people to read this last paragraph as setting up a false binary between slow research being “good” and fast research being “bad.” Indeed, there is a place for both. However, in the race for tenure, and the need for many to focus on doing more in shorter amounts of time (both researchers and practitioners), it becomes clear that the scales have tipped too far toward fast research and incomplete studies/analyses. Scholars like Drs. Goldrick-Rab, McMillan Cottom, Patel (whose book Youth Held at the Border is a long-term ethnographic study that I love and admire), Stewart (whose book Black Collegians’ Experiences in U.S. Northern Private Colleges is a beautifully written historical text), and Magolda (who has written two books based on long-term ethnographic engagement) serve as impressive resisters in educational research; resisters I find myself compelled to follow.
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.