The Real College Experience


“Done! My speech is done!” my dad told me, so enthusiastically. It was the night before his college graduation ceremony. I still remember that graduation reception late in the afternoon. There were so many people and he looked incredibly happy. After working with lawyers for over ten years, he had finally decided it was time for him to go to college and get a degree. But going to college wasn't easy for him. He continued to work full time during the day and took evening classes. It took him six years and he made it to the end. Now, he was ready to deliver his speech on behalf of his entire class. He was fifty-six years old.

In reading Paying the Price (2016) by Sara Goldrick-Rab, it becomes apparent that when discussing student success in college, there are many important factors to consider. The literature is robust with approaches on how institutions, Academic Affairs staff, Student Affairs staff, faculty and even local communities can play an impactful role in promoting and sustaining student success. Over time, though, some factors have not received as much attention. Such is the case for students who take out loans unaware of what this implies; students with a low-income background and lack of family support; students with a higher need to support their families; and even those students who struggle to balance fundamental needs such as eating and sleeping. These other areas have become incredibly big hurdles over time that prevent students from attending, staying in, and graduating from college.

Goldrick-Rab (2016) embarks on a journey to investigate the effects of money and college success. Her book, Paying the Price, is the culmination of years of research and adds points of discussion that must be addressed in the current conversations on higher education and student success. Based on a study which tracked as many as 3,000 students across a wide university system to fully understand the impact of their financial aid, the book outlines a rationale for understanding the complexities of the financial aid system, its flaws, and the experiences of students when attending college. The study followed university students and their experiences over the next few years. The stories, common themes, and areas of focus coupled with institutional performance and outcomes data inform the bulk of the book. One important takeaway to highlight from the author’s work is how pushing students to take more credits and add more academic workload can actually be detrimental for them and push them out to the door. It is extremely difficult for students to navigate the overall financial aid system. Spotlighting students with a low-income background, the author talks about students who struggle with eating on a daily basis; sleeping well when working and attending college; and struggling with paying bills. The author reports that of all the students in the study, 62% worked an average of 18 hours a week. According to the research, the author points out, working more than 15 hours a week is associated with poor academic outcomes.

The strong points about Goldrick-Rab’s work rely on the exploration of questions that are not normally surfaced and how these aspects affect students’ ability to succeed in college. For example, the author talks about investigating the anxiety behind seeking employment while in college. It is true that many students struggle to balance work and college at the same time but it is also true that those attending college whether part or full time and that are in desperate need of getting a job are also under high levels of anxiety because they don’t know how they are going to pay for their bills at the end of the month. This has detrimental effects on their academic performance. Many students, as the book reports, find themselves having to make a decision between taking a job or a class. Additionally, there is a thorough look at those students who find themselves in the need of having to take out a loan without knowing, most of the times, the struggling experiences they will have when repaying this debt.

My dad’s speech was great. But I know I am biased, of course. In the end, what I remember the most was having seen this as a culmination of many sleepless nights doing work. At the end, it paid off. His efforts and perseverance pushed him all the way till the end. But many students don’t end up making it all the way and. In many cases, this happens because the system is inadequate. It can be argued that the system is not looking for their best interest. The mass of students attending college now has increased exponentially from decades ago; and this has resulted in a system that is now obsolete, inadequate, and unable to sustain a support structure to promote student success. Goldrick-Rab’s work sets the stage for a reality-check conversation around this. Her research, data, narrative, and particularly student voice and experience, reminds us all about the current realities of attending college. This experience is not an easy one. Although higher education can give you more chances of a better income, a healthier life, and better outcomes in many other fronts, it can also present you with very challenging situations where you need to be flanked with support from institutions, individuals, but also with emotional strength. Goldrick-Rab offers an in-depth look and what the real college price is and how the real college experience unfolds spotlighting students and experiences that we normally don't talk much about.


Goldrick-Rab, S. (2016). Paying the Price: College costs, financial aid, and the betrayal of the American dream. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.