In Conversation (l–r) Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of sociology at Temple University and 2018 Andrew Carnegie Fellow, and Saskia Levy Thompson, director of the Education program’s New Designs to Advance Learning portfolio at Carnegie Corporation of New York (Credits: [l] Pat Robinson; [r] Natalie Holt)
How can a sociologist change our thinking about who completes college and who doesn’t? Meet Sara Goldrick-Rab, 2018 Andrew Carnegie Fellow and professor of sociology at Temple University. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and highlighted stark inequalities on college campuses, she brought food and housing issues to the forefront of the conversation about why and how low- and moderate-income students are derailed from graduating. Having led the largest national studies on the subject, she is trying to make higher education work for all students.
Founder of Temple University’s Hope Center for College Community and Justice, which recently launched resources to help universities and colleges support students during the COVID-19 pandemic, Goldrick-Rab is the author of the award-winning book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. She is also the chief strategy officer for emergency aid at Edquity, founder of the nonprofit Believe in Students, and recently was featured in Hungry to Learn, a documentary film by Soledad O’Brien and Geeta Gandbhir that depicts the hunger and homelessness experienced by four college students as they work toward obtaining degrees that are just out of reach.
The following is an edited conversation on college access, persistence, and completion between Goldrick-Rab and Saskia Levy Thompson, director of the Education program’s New Designs to Advance Learning portfolio at Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The Andrew Carnegie Fellows program supports high-level scholarship in the social sciences and humanities, providing grants to scholars like Sara Goldrick-Rab, whose groundbreaking work addresses important and enduring issues confronting our society. Learn more.
Saskia Levy Thompson: There’s an exciting intersection between your work and an active area of our grantmaking. Our Education program is focused on preparing future leaders and citizens and that requires fundamentally rethinking our public education system. You briefly attended the College of William and Mary before transferring to George Washington University, and you did your graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where you earned your doctorate in sociology. What was your experience?
Sara Goldrick-Rab: I was viewed as only a modest achiever at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, where everybody goes to college and gets 1600s on their SATs. I was counseled to go to a community college, and they meant it in a stigmatizing way. When I spoke at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) recently, I told them it was one of the greatest honors of my life. Community college is a social mobility institution, and we have done something wrong when we make bright young people think negatively about that kind of school. I would have been proud to graduate from NOVA! It is far more diverse and exciting than the places where I was educated.
Saskia Levy Thompson: Your research is focused on college persistence, and understanding its relationship to poverty, food and housing, and security. What was the accepted paradigm around these questions, and where are we now?
Goldrick-Rab: The core text is Vincent Tinto’s book Leaving College. His main paradigm comes from Emile Durkheim’s Suicide, a book I read in my first year of college. Durkheim’s idea was that people kill themselves when they become disconnected from the people around them — they experience anomie, they become isolated, so they end their lives. Tinto translated this to higher education, saying basically that if a student doesn’t become connected in college and doesn’t feel close to the college, they’ll do the equivalent of suicide, which is dropping out.
A lot of students leave college and then return, sometimes two or three times. We need to normalize that idea, that it’s legitimate to keep trying and there is no shame in it.
I had problems with that analogy. First, I don’t think dropping out is anything like suicide, even with debt. A lot of students leave college and then return, sometimes two or three times. We need to normalize that idea, that it’s legitimate to keep trying and there is no shame in it. Second, I think feeling a connection to the college is important, but I don’t think it is quite as central as he suggested. In the latest data, I was seeing that a growing number of students didn’t just attend one college — but two or three. Their needs for particular courses change, they can save money here or there, so they transfer. There’s no shame in that either.
At the time, I was researching the effects of changes in welfare policy on access to college for low-income women, and I was also doing a dissertation on data from the Department of Education about changing colleges. I saw the same dynamics that I was learning about in sociology — residential segregation, poverty, the low-wage market, family expectations. But they were mostly missing from the literature on college student success. I felt like the biggest contribution I could make was to bridge sociology and higher education with a deeper understanding of how poverty affected the college experience.
Temple University’s Hope Center for College Community and Justice, founded by Sara Goldrick-Rab, recently launched resources to help universities and colleges support students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
My team and I knew that when it came to money and college there were things we didn't know and weren't asking questions about, and we took qualitative work seriously. So we sat down with students, and we literally asked, “How’s it going?” It’s not as if questions about food and housing security were on our minds from day one. That happened when a college student answered, “I haven’t eaten in two days,” and my team listened. We realized that there was virtually nothing in the research literature about these issues. And then we put the questions on a survey to test the hypothesis that food and housing issues might be a widespread challenge. We have now surveyed more than 330,000 students at more than 400 institutions over the last five years. It is a thing.
The numbers are scary. More than one-third have been homeless in the last 12 months. More than half of Hispanics and Latinos suffered food insecurity in the last 30 days — and 58 percent of African Americans and 59 percent of Native Americans.
Levy Thompson: So how do issues of poverty affect college attendance, college persistence, and the experience of these young people?
Goldrick-Rab: Students skip meals, they eat cheaper bad food and less of it, they lose weight (or gain way too much of it), they can’t study. And they couch surf. Some higher education people don’t count that as homelessness because it sounds like fun. But it is stressful, not knowing where you’re going to sleep the next night. Students see it as if they did something wrong; as if they are somehow the cause of their own poverty. This shame cuts the legs off their ability to get help, and to become activists and advocates. So their chances of persisting in college are very low.
Students don't always drop out from their institution’s lack of trying. They drop out because the forces of racism and poverty around them are such a strong pull that the institution’s efforts are often no match for those forces.
Students don't always drop out from their institution’s lack of trying. They drop out because the forces of racism and poverty around them are such a strong pull that the institution’s efforts are often no match for those forces. At a Boston community college, for example, many students pointed out they had a health condition of some kind, and if they didn’t eat, awful things happened to them. A tremendous number aren’t getting any dental care, and beyond that the mental health data is terrifying.
We are not paying enough attention to what I summarize as “life, logistics, and money.” Transportation, the price of the subway, the sheer amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B — that’s a top reason they don’t come to class. If we watched these factors while students were getting ready to leave high school and rated on a scale of 1 to 5 how things are going with life, logistics, and money, you could probably predict who is going to make it in college.
Levy Thompson: Which groups of students are most vulnerable?
Goldrick-Rab: It’s undeniable for the lowest-income group. But also for even the working poor and middle-class students now. They’re experiencing downward mobility, and I think in some cases college literally can create poverty. Our prices are so far gone, parents are taking on loans they can’t afford, and what looks like achievable cost for the first year or two is not by the third year. So to save money the student transfers to a school closer to home and lives with their parents. A growing number are also working two or even three or four jobs, especially if you add the work they might do online. And side hustles, like selling plasma or selling themselves, like on dating sites. This is too real, and it’s because jobs like waiting tables aren’t getting it done any more.
So these students go to classes, and they spend as much time as other students studying. What they lack is time to sleep at night. Very few professors look at a student nodding off in class and think, “Gee, I wonder if they have a place to sleep?” Instead, they think, “You’re wasting my time,” and they write them off.
The students often also have children themselves — 4.3 million college students have children now. So they need childcare, and that would be another reason to live with their parents, besides the free housing. But many parents expect the students to use their financial aid to help with the rent, which aid offices really don’t acknowledge or account for. The student might also take on a bunch of chores and tasks for the family. There are a lot of reasons why living on campus is correlated with higher rates of college graduation — it’s the wealthier and far more privileged students who live on campus to begin with.
Levy Thompson: How much of this is about sharing information?
Goldrick-Rab: It is the job of higher-ed authorities to share information about public benefits and emergency aid for students. Counselors need to make sure the students know about SNAP — the federal food program — and how to apply. Even one hour of work-study per week can meet the work requirement. There is often emergency help to pay utility bills and find housing and help them juggle work and study and sleep. But students have to be told about these things, and that there’s no stigma attached to them. Wealthy students call for emergency aid all the time: they call mom. And mom sends a check.
Students usually think of poverty as a personal failure, like it is their fault. But if they know that is not true, they can begin to understand that there are solutions and become activists in their own lives. Then they are not going to be as demoralized; they will have less anxiety, less depression.
Here is what my team is telling students. First, the real price of college is higher than anybody is telling you. Forget net price and discounts — the official numbers, even financial aid, understate things. Second, help is available, and you have a right to demand it. Don’t be arrogant, but go in there like you deserve it and ask for it. Third, you are not alone. Students usually think of poverty as a personal failure, like it is their fault. But if they know that is not true, they can begin to understand that there are solutions and become activists in their own lives. Then they are not going to be as demoralized; they will have less anxiety, less depression.
Levy Thompson: A lot of college access organizations see their job as better preparing students to thrive in a world that isn’t designed for them. What you are suggesting is different: how can we redesign the world so that it is better prepared to embrace those students?
Goldrick-Rab: You got it. I don’t want to teach students to have grit. I want to ask why they need grit to get through the system. What we need is a mindset shift in higher ed. It’s not that expensive. We just need to stop thinking of these students as fragile and start thinking of them as hard-working people that with a little support — boy oh boy, can they fly.