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Every Learner Everywhere

A Q&A with Sara Goldrick-Rab: How Students Experience the Stress of College Affordability

This Q&A took place on November 12, 2020.

The question that prompted this article was if and how college students experience the stress of loan debt while they are still in college. Most higher education professionals are familiar with how student debt is a drag on the economic prospects of students after they graduate — or, worse, after they stop out of college without graduating. But do student loans impact students while they are sitting in the classroom trying to learn?

Of course they do, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor of Sociology and Medicine at Temple University and author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. But students are preoccupied with other economic factors even more. “Yes, student debt is on their minds,” she says. “But to be honest with you, it’s just one of many, many challenges they’re facing.”

Student loans, Goldrick-Rab says, are a symptom of the unaffordability of college. That unaffordability weighs significantly on the student experience and on the ability of college instructors to help students achieve their learning goals.

The difficulty of affording college is so common, in fact, that higher education needs to reorient itself around that reality, Goldrick-Rab says She and her colleagues at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, where she is the president and founder promote the #RealCollege movement to redefine higher education policy and practices to account for the challenges today’s students face. She describes #RealCollege as a signaling mechanism intended to change mindsets.

“We got the name Real College from MTV’s ‘The Real World,’” she says. “[Our slogan is] ‘It’s time to stop being polite and start getting real.’ I say this a lot. We are arriving at debt — the situation we’re in — because of the new economics of college. Those things are getting worse.”

In this interview, edited for space and clarity, Goldrick-Rab describes the deleterious influence that decreased financial aid, a fraying social safety net, rising costs, and stagnant wages have on the college learning experience, particularly for students affected by poverty. She also discusses how instructors can work around those challenges, as well as the limits to what instructors can do without systemic change.

When a college instructor looks around the classroom, what would be helpful to understand about how their students are experiencing student loan debt? 

It’s important for an instructor to think about what it means that college is unaffordable now. It means looking around and understanding these students are exhausted. They’re going through an enormous amount of stress to make ends meet. Some of them don’t have enough to eat. Some of them don’t have a safe place to sleep. These students are feeling disengaged for any number of reasons. They’re disengaged and quite depressed.

Many instructors went to college at a time when the price burden simply wasn’t nearly as high for students. Even a year of community college after grants and scholarships averages $15,000 a year, according to The College Board’s latest report, and that’s a conservative estimate.

It’s very important that people also understand that one reason students have so many loans is that increasingly, they do not have parents who can support them. It’s not that they are bad parents. It’s that they are dealing with the same economic struggles the rest of America is dealing with, and they don’t have extra money to support their student’s education.

It’s also important to know that one big reason people are taking on debt is because work doesn’t pay well enough. This isn’t primarily a story about tuition. It’s a story about how living costs are up, and the minimum wage is still sadly low. People who work during college can’t make ends meet, so they have to take loans.

It used to be the case that a lower-income person could get help during college if the grants were not enough and avoid taking loans. For example, they could get access to TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] or SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], and these programs have been cut back. In effect, we’ve cut the budget on those programs and transferred the cost over to the student loan portfolio and, of course, onto the backs of students.

The other thing that’s important is that student loan debt is rising in part because institutions simply have less money than they used to. Their endowments on a per-student basis are actually quite low, and that means they don’t have much in the way of institutional aid to give students.

How do debt and the unaffordability of college affect learning outcomes? 

If your cognitive functioning is focused on those other areas of stress and strain, then it’s not going to be focused on learning. There’s a great book called Scarcity I highly recommend that explains this [Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir]. If you are too busy trying to think about where you’re going to sleep that night or how you are going to pay your utility bill, you’re not going to be absorbing the biology lesson.

The impacts, of course, are inequitably distributed. Students of color, students who are LGBTQ, students who grew up in foster care, students with children, students who were veterans — these folks are all at greater risk of these challenges. If these issues are not taken into account, of course, the gaps we already see in both learning and degree completion will be exacerbated.

What responsibility does that put on instructors? 

I don’t think instructors need to be sitting there thinking about student debt. They need to reorient their policies and practices because they’re totally misaligned with the needs of real college students to begin with.

There’s a lot faculty can do. Moving away from thinking that attendance is a good proxy for engagement. Moving toward asynchronous learning that gives people more flexibility. Understanding that submitting something on a particular date is not a proxy for competency but may simply be a proxy for privilege.

Another practice we recommend to center learning is ungrading. Grades get in the way of actual learning and they stress students out in really unproductive ways. We have put out a great deal of guidance on our website in this regard. We also worked closely with Digital Pedagogy Lab under the leadership of Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel to teach faculty these things.

We are in the process of creating a new curriculum that can actually help faculty get up to speed very quickly. Some of these include putting a basic needs security statement on their syllabus. If you want to know what that looks like, you can find that under resources on our website. 

How has digital learning technology and distance learning affected how students experience college affordability? 

Distance learning can be done well. It can be done with a lot of connectivity and compassion. On my syllabus for the semester you’ll see I’m emphasizing connectivity to my students. We have lots of contact, but not necessarily synchronous contact. They get me when they need me. I’m open to talking with them about issues that you might not think of as my classroom issues. It can be done; it’s just that it’s often not done.

I wouldn’t blame instructors. The fact is, instructors have not been given the support they need. They were not trained on this.

And let’s be perfectly honest — faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. The Hope Center has a report out that shows faculty are not okay. We get what we pay for, so to speak.

What practical steps do you want to recommend to instructors? 

I believe every course needs an instructional designer’s help, especially if it’s an online course. Very, very few faculty were taught anything about instructional design. It would be incredibly important for instructional designers to be more readily available to any faculty member, especially those who need to teach online. The design and delivery of the course matters at least as much as whatever it is we think that we’re teaching.

The biggest goal right now is to advocate for policy change. This is not something that’s going to be shifted unless we address the new economics of college. We have to make major investments in order to drive down the price for students. We have to increase the investments in the institutions so that instructors have the support that they need in order to teach students, and teach them well, and equitably.

We also have to raise the minimum wage so that students can work during college and actually have it pay off. We’re not going to be able to simply buy them out of work entirely. That would not happen. We also need to provide adequate supports for affordable housing, affordable food, affordable childcare, affordable transportation, and so on.

So it’s a major moment in U.S. history as I’m speaking to you now [Nov. 12, 2020], and we’ll see what’s ahead.