Getting To Know Sara Goldrick-Rab and her Mission For Higher Education
by Sara Goldrick-Rab
May 27, 2019
frank: Thanks for taking the time, I really appreciate it.
Sara Goldrick-Rab: No problem. It's been a busy week. I did a TED Talk.
I saw! How did it go?
It went well. Those are challenging things to do. You never know until it's out there. But I don't do this stuff to just do it. I do it to get people to move and to act, so I think that'll be the test.
You’ve come up in a lot of interviews this month as a catalyst, inspiration, or touch stone for students, advocates and academics alike.
There are a lot of students saying, “look at The Hope Center, look at Sara's work!” When we spoke with Rachel at Swipe Hunger, for example, she described a transition in her work. She went from spending all her time convincing schools hunger was a problem, to working on logistics because they know it’s a problem – she linked a lot of it to the timing of your work being publishing.
I just recently understood that's actually how you do collective impact work. That's actually a strategy of collective impact work. I didn't know that because I don't know those buzzwords.
I am bringing the data to help get people on the same page. So that the people doing the work don't have to keep making the case for the work. That's a collective impact strategy.
It's funny to do something by accident and have it really work. But I'm glad it's made life easier for people like Rachel, because they're amazing and they've been doing so much.
How did you become interested in this area of work?
I actually thought about that a lot because I wasn't a first-generation college student. And I wasn't a Pell recipient. A lot of people in my area have come to it because they lived it in that sense. I think the reason I do this is really because I'm very, very close to my maternal grandfather who went to college on the GI Bill. The first one, the good one. He has always talked about that – way before I ever did this work. I don't know why, but he always has. And I still have him. He's 91 years old.
He always talked about how much college paid off for him – and he doesn't mean in terms of money at all.
It changed our family. My grandmother was already highly educated. She wouldn't have looked his way if he didn't go to college. We talked for a long time about how different things are now. He says we're eating our seed corn – so I've always had that. The other thing is my family is pretty social justice oriented. It's not like I grew up going to protests, but I grew up inside the D.C. Beltway, so I've always had a pretty good sense of the complexity of the political world.
Then I became a sociologist, and that helps you see the bigger picture. I was assigned a project as a graduate student to go visit community colleges for a particular professor. Once I set foot on a community college campus I was hooked, because I could see all the bigger-world stuff I was studying in school playing out.
I could see racial and economic inequality playing out right on that campus. I could see all sorts of gender issues. Once you know what's really happening, especially at the community colleges, it's really hard to turn away from that. I've never turned away from them again. When I talk about higher ed they're really at the forefront of what I'm talking about. And the basic needs stuff.
I started doing work on community college campuses around 1999, and I didn't start talking about the basic needs stuff until around 2008. It was almost ten years working on policy. I was talking a lot about financial aid policy and I was studying that. Everything turned on a dime when we were doing qualitative interviews. We talked to a lot of people.
One student revealed her biggest challenge was that she hadn't eaten in two days. My whole life now is a reflection of the fact that she decided to say that.
It wasn't like we were like, "oh my God that's terrible and we're outraged." It wasn't like that. It was like, wait a minute. That's not something higher ed is talking about and is that a thing? Is this actually possible that it's affecting more than one person? So then we went out and we did survey work. We were in Wisconsin at the time, and our survey work turned up so much evidence that this was happening all over the state, in all sorts of colleges, and further, that it was related to a housing issue. Frankly, I didn't put that work into the public eye until 2015.
We're studying it, we're talking about it, but I wasn't making a big deal about it in the public eye until 2015 when we started to look at this outside of Wisconsin and do surveys in different places around the country. Once I saw the data we got from that first bigger survey, matched everything we saw in Wisconsin, I wrote about it in the New York Times – and that literally changed everything. That's the entire basis of today's Hope Center. We already had The Hope Lab in Wisconsin. We were already doing work on college affordability. But the big focus of this center now, which is literally making change happen, particularly around basic needs, came from all of that.
My graduate student and I put this thing together. We published it around Thanksgiving 2015. I hoped it was going to generate tons of dollars of support. Like money was going to come pouring in for both research and advocacy. It didn't happen. What poured in were emails from people like Rachel.
They were like, “we're working on this! We are so alone here. Nobody understands what we're doing. We are getting lost.” I had two months of getting all these emails. By January I said okay the best thing we can do is get these people in a room together. The spring of 2016 we brought all these people to Wisconsin in Milwaukee and got them in a room together. That was our first Real College Conference, and that started this #realcollege movement. That's the origin. Fast forward and we're going to have our fourth conference this year.
It's huge. It's kind of quite overwhelming to me.
You realized something silent, but ubiquitous. What’s the context for the crisis of basic needs in higher education in America?
I summarize that by referring to what I call the new economics of college. My book, Paying The Price, has a pretty extensive description of that. I do that because I want people to understand, as you're alluding to, a bunch of things did this. It wasn't one thing. It's not just tuition. That's totally oversimplified. Certainly tuition is up, and certainly that is terrible. The fact is that you used to be able to use your Pell Grant and it would completely cover your tuition at the community college and you'd have money left over for living expenses. That's no longer true. States have pulled back on their funding, which has sent tuition up.
All this time we never talked about the other parts of the cost of attendance. Things like food, which have always been in the cost of attendance.
Federal law has always recognized food as an important part of going to college. We didn't pay any attention though, to the fact that food costs were rising. We didn't pay attention to the fact that there were pundits lamenting fancy dorms – but not talking about the literal affordable housing crisis.
Policy makers were more intent on trying to be sure that college students didn't get access to affordable housing, things that are paid for by the low income housing tax credit. They were so intent on ensuring students didn't abuse this they cut them out of the program. And there's an unintended consequence of that, which is that now there's not much affordable housing at all for these people.
It's taking your eye off the ball and not noticing all the stuff affecting ordinary Americans is also going to affect students.
The other really big change that happened is obviously about who comes to college. Today's students don't look like yesterday's students. That comes with consequences. It means our overriding assumption, that a college student has two parents with jobs who basically pay for what they need, is completely false. When there's an unexpected bill – a student has fees they didn't know they would have to pay, or they have to buy more supplies for a class – the parent is not going to be able to help. So the student struggles. And when they pay that bill, because they have to, that leaves them short of what they need for food or for rent.
It's a budgetary pressure. But it's not just a pressure on the student, it's a pressure on the family.
This is also really well aligned with national statistics which show you that as many as half of all Americans say they couldn't handle a $500 unexpected expense. Couldn't handle it. That's very scary.
That's very scary.
There's not a lot of money these days. And $500 unexpected expenses happen all the time to college students. The labor market is closely related. Obviously families are struggling in part because we think we have wage stagnation, so wages they're making are not better than the wages they were making 30 years ago, and yet things cost a lot. The purchasing power remains exactly the same. When it comes to the college student, they've always held part-time minimum-wage jobs. Well, there's more competition for them. Some days my students literally have to decide am I coming to class or am I keeping my job?
The value of the minimum wage has declined, so that's the other thing. It's not that these students aren't working their way through college, 70% of all students are working. Our data suggests that probably half of the other 30% are trying to find work, and can't find it. People have said why don't these students just get a job?
Our data is so clear. 90% of all of these homeless college students already have jobs, or they're trying to get one right now, which means they're part of the labor force.
Look, I can't say enough about how that's a huge, huge problem for most people.
Changes to government policies around the social safety net which, again, largely exclude college students also contributes. The most prominent problem has to do with the food stamp program. It is deliberately exclusionary to college students, and that didn't used to be so. In the 1970's if you were food insecure, there was more support available from the government and the institution.
The last part of the new economics is the defunding of these schools. This is not just about rising college prices for the student, it's about the fact that schools are being given less money from states to actually provide support services to students. And there you go.
You take an under-resourced student facing prices that are way higher than anybody expected, with less financial aid, families that cannot back them up, government policies that won't back them up, a labor force that leaves them short, and colleges that don't have the money to back them up either.
It's a perfect storm.
Legislation is inherently politicized. Have you found effective ways of communicating the work you’re doing without making it about politics?
Boy is this hard. The first thing that I want to be clear about is that the data are viewed as political. And because, as you said, it crosses multiple social issues, I want to flag that we seem to have stepped into a long-standing debate over whether the USDA's definition of food insecurity is a real thing. There are those who have apparently (and I just discovered this world of people) said “there isn't hunger. America doesn't have a hunger problem. The USDA has a definition that is bullshit.
The USDA's definition is about capturing poverty and the effect of poverty on food access, that's really what it's doing. We also get into serious debate now over whether this is food insecurity. Whether it actually is a problem. So I want to flag that.
The second debate is over homelessness. Because the federal government alone has six definitions of homelessness and they don't involve college students.
When we start talking about homelessness, some say, she's just a left-winger who wants everything to be free. This is not homelessness if students are couch surfing. That's been hard. I think it's really hard for my research team in particular, because it's data. We're not supposed to be debating. We shouldn't have to debate this stuff, but it is debatable.
On the political side, I've tried to make clear to people that you can certainly take a left-wing social-justice lens and say look this is just a horrible thing to do to people. To punish them for getting an education. It's also, frankly, economically really inefficient. That's what I try to explain when I'm talking to somebody who wants to walk down the middle. It is tremendously inefficient to make investments at the federal and state levels of hundreds of billions of dollars in higher education for things like student aid, and then leave students just short of what they actually need for food and housing and have them drop out. This doesn't make sense.
It's also really economically inefficient to sacrifice the health of these people so that we can pay for it down the road. I'm increasingly interested in the health community. I am fascinated by the fact that they've caught on here, and they're getting that having a diabetic college student go without enough to eat is a really bad idea. There's going to be things that we're going to live with down the road in terms of additional cost, as a result of literally neglecting and missing the opportunity to do this and address these things during college.
Does it matter who the message comes from? Is it better if it comes directly from a student in the state you’re addressing? If it’s a conservative state, does having a student from the place discuss their personal experience help, so it doesn’t feel like preaching?
I have to be honest and say we haven't gotten the opportunity to do good work in a lot of conservative states yet. I worked in Wisconsin under Scott Walker, but we weren't working with the politicians at that point. There was no point. It was an impossible situation. I've certainly been in those places, but it is notable to me who calls and who isn't calling right now. I am actively working with legislators in California, Oregon, Washington state, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. These are fairly left-leaning places. Minnesota, we're not yet talking. Last night I sent an email over to Tennessee to flag for them that they're not really having the basic needs conversation while they're having the College Promise conversation.
I'm hoping I can make some headway there. I do know all those people on the College Promise side. In terms of how the students talk – I have been everywhere, I've spent a bunch of time in Kentucky, as an example – and there is a remarkable similarity to how the students talk across the country with probably one difference being in California.
Almost without exception the students have embraced and internalized a narrative of self-blame.
They really, really do. If you ask them why these things are happening they will offer you an individual critique, not a structural critique.
We know that in this country we blame the poor for their poverty. We really teach them that. I talk a lot now about the fact that I find this in all of my interviews and in my daily interactions. These students will have heard me give a talk where I make this structural critique, and then I ask them about their story, and it will always come with self-blame. And this narrative of all their failures and how they weren't financially literate enough and all of these things.
They don't seem to get that you cannot produce numbers like this if this is just the problem of individual people. It would be impossible to produce numbers this large.
The exception seems to be in California, where I really do think it's in the water practically to be offering a critique of the system.
In terms of how the students think about this issue, it's not that they're not fighting mad and all of that, but I really do think that until they truly get what the causes are it's going to be hard to move past advocacy purely based on this just sucks. You know what I mean?
When you explain your argument about structural and systemic issues to students, do they believe you?
They do. That's one of the things I find so fascinating. Both listening to them and then telling them that they're not alone, and this is not their fault. Telling them that I know this is not their fault because of who I am and what I know. Even when I cannot give them money, which they always want, and they know I have a small non-profit that does give money, I still see changes. I have so many emails from students who said I never thought I could talk about this stuff, and I really thought it was just me.
One of the students I worked with a lot really recently is a woman named Jenae Parker, who is a former community college student in Ohio. I met her briefly at an event and then later connected with her because we were looking for people to testify before Congress, and she ultimately was selected. I had volunteered to help her prepare, and I asked her to write her narrative, what she wanted to say. She wanted to tell her story. But in the process of getting it really ready I gave her the statistics.
When she would talk about how she ran short of money to buy food, I would let her know our estimates of food insecurity among college students are the following. She just kept saying, "I had no idea. I had no idea. This is happening to other people? I had no idea." And at the end of the day, she delivered testimony that recognizes her own personal story, but it links it to the broader structural system. I have watched this young woman emerge into an advocate. She really got it.
I really hope that all of us that are getting to interact with these students are doing that for them, because I think it's really empowering. We have been trying at The Hope Center to find a funder to allow us to do this work with a much bigger group of students, because we think it's so insanely important. And we're going to be trying to do it with Max and RISE, because we think this would create more change.
What are you working on right now?
We've been testing the efficacy of a variety of supports. Rachel's got Swipe Out Hunger, right? We need to know how much Swipe Out Hunger actually moves the dial. Not just does it address food insecurity, but does it change student's grades? We have a set of things we've been in the field testing for the last two years. We have a food scholarship intervention in Houston. We have a meal voucher program in Boston. We have a housing voucher program in Tacoma. We're starting to look into work in Chicago.
I'm really excited about what happens when we start to have that knowledge, and start to be able to talk not just about the problem, not just about all the poor issues, not just about student's impact, or effects on the students and their feelings and all of that. But when we actually address these issues here's what we get. That's what we really need. Frankly that's what I need with Republicans. I need a chart that just shows this. Here's how many people are affected. Here's what happens when we put the money in here versus there. Look, you're going to save overall on the spending.
I mean, I certainly know of reasonable, level-headed Republicans who will listen to that. I also know that there are others who ideologically are just never going to get there.
Because the word "free"?
Right. Because the word free is attached. The word free is a funny thing. I feel very strongly about the word free. I don't want things attached to it. I don't want any of this other crap.
Free is the word, and free is the word that the people who need these supports need to hear.
They need to hear it. They need to know that they will not be paying that cost. It's why advertising people and marketing people use this word all the time. That's how attractive it is. It gets something achieved that I think is so necessary. The question of what I can get achieved here is a question about building the biggest constituency that can accept it.
At the end of the day, we did it with high school, and we're going to do it with college.
It'll happen when rural communities in particular start to understand that they're being locked out. When you start opening opportunities, and when the white working class begins to understand how much they stand to benefit here, and how screwed they would've been if we didn't make high school free. We'll get there.
We'll get there.