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The GW Hatchet

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The GW Hatchet

Alumna, college affordability expert talks student finances

Sara Goldrick-Rab, an alumna and professor of higher education and sociology at Temple University, spoke about college affordability on campus Thursday.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, an alumna and professor of higher education and sociology at Temple University, spoke about college affordability on campus Thursday.

This post was written by reporter Leah Potter.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a 1998 alumna and professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, spoke to a group of about 15 students, faculty and administrators about college affordability Thursday evening.

“The Cost of College: Not Just About Money” is the first of a two-part series designed to discuss the new reality of college finances. The second part of the series will be held Dec. 2 at 12:00 p.m., and will be targeted towards faculty, staff and administrators. The event was hosted by the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute.

Goldrick-Rab, who is considered a leading voice on college affordability among higher education experts, emphasized the importance of looking at college finances from the student’s perspective. She said preconceived notions and opinions about paying for a higher education need to be dissolved.

1. Learning from personal experiences

Goldrick-Rab is the daughter of a former assistant professor at GW and a lawyer. She initially did not expect paying for college to bring about any difficulties, but her parent’s divorce shortly before she left for college brought unexpected costs.

Goldrick-Rab was initially promised free tuition at GW because of her mother’s position as an adjunct assistant professor at the University, but also received a scholarship. At first, Goldrick-Rab was confused – scholarships are not typically awarded to students receiving full tuition.

Goldrick-Rab later received a call informing her that she was not qualified to receive a scholarship in addition to free tuition. She then had to move off campus.

“I started to learn about living costs,” Goldrick-Rab said. “Eating in the Marvin Center and having a meal plan, I didn’t understand all living costs.”

She began working 40 hours a week as a waitress in Arlington and later moved out of D.C. for affordability reasons. She graduated GW in three years in 1998, working her way through school.

“It set me apart a bit to be a working student here,” Goldrick-Rab said. “It changes things to have the budget and the money be the center.”

2. The cost of living

Goldrick-Rab discussed how the cost of food and housing are often the largest stresses on a student’s budget. She said that learning about The Store, a food pantry GW started this semester, showed her the harsh reality of student finances today.

“I was fairly taken aback when I found out about the food pantry here,” Goldrick-Rab said. “It’s a hard thing to imagine.”

In addition to not being able to afford enough food, she said college students also struggle with finding inexpensive nutritious options.

“If you were eating ramen everyday, we shouldn’t assume that that is your food cost,” she said. “You should be able to eat nutritious food.”

Living costs can also put a huge strain on a college student’s finances, as only 13 percent of undergraduates live on campus, Goldrick-Rab said. Those who live off-campus often live with their families, though they might be charged “rent” to live there. She said that in many situations, the students who struggle most with affordable living accommodations are in marginalized groups.

“The biggest group of homeless students that we’re finding are part of the LGBTQ community,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They are cut off from their parents, and financial aid doesn’t recognize that.”

3. Independent research

With the help of her colleagues, Goldrick-Rab went through census results and collected data from official sources to compute the cost of living for undergraduate students. Items like food, transportation, and housing were all taken into account.

“One third of universities are underestimating the cost by at least 3,000 dollars,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Goldrick-Rab said that the conversation about college costs has to go from people saying “this is painful, this is wrong,” to experts having a more data driven conversation.

“Please think creatively about this,” Goldrick-Rab urged the audience. “They’re going to need a lot of ideas.”

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