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Education Policy Expert Lauds UTEP Efforts to Help Low-Income Students

Last Updated on February 19, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Originally published February 19, 2018

By Pablo Villa

UTEP Communications

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Ph.D., has spent much of the last decade examining the plight of college students struggling to pay for their education.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Ph.D.,
Sara Goldrick-Rab, Ph.D.

Her work is compiled in her 2016 book, “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.” Now that the professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia is armed with knowledge of what students are facing, she is sharing it in the hopes of enacting political, social and economic change to help them.

She did just that during a visit to The University of Texas at El Paso in February 2018. Goldrick-Rab spoke to an audience made up of UTEP faculty, staff and students at the El Paso Natural Gas Conference Center about the research and advocacy for low-income students that earned her the 2018 Grawemeyer Prize in Education.

“There is so much pain going on all over this country right now in the lives of students,” Goldrick-Rab said. “To the extent that you are facing students who have stories to tell, please go tell it. Most times my audiences are not like you. They don’t know that what I’m saying is real. They have to be convinced, which means that we haven’t told these stories enough times.”

Goldrick-Rab outlined the findings of her exhaustive six-year project in which her research team continually followed 3,000 Pell grant recipients throughout their academic journeys in Wisconsin. What she found were lives laden with harsh realities and impediments to graduation.

Along with bureaucracy, hunger and homelessness, one of the chief challenges faced by today’s low-income students is what Goldrick-Rab referred to as the “new economics of college.”

This notion is marked by three tenets – rising tuition prices, stagnant household incomes and competing priorities for state funds.

“In the last 20 years, we’re now in a situation where the vast majority of people aren’t getting ahead,” Goldrick-Rab said. “The middle class is now being left behind. It has always been the case in America that children have a better life than their parents, and they know they will. We are now confronting the first generation where we cannot be assured that’s the case.”

Goldrick-Rab said all these factors combine to present colleges with very difficult decisions when weighing tuition hikes.

“What we have now are disadvantaged students facing very high prices from families with very few resources going into schools with very few resources,” she said. “That is the new economics of college.”

Gary Edens, Ed.D., vice president for student affairs, first heard Goldrick-Rab speak about her findings during a conference in San Francisco. Her words reverberated, and he knew he had to get her in front of a UTEP audience.

“I began to realize that, as she was talking about a student population up north, in many ways she was describing the very population that we serve here in the El Paso region,” Edens said. “The dialogue about financial aid, the dialogue about access and the dialogue about how many people really do not pursue higher education because of the cost really struck a chord with me. So, as we began to think in student affairs about our professional development this year, I thought, ‘This is the book we should talk about.’”

UTEP has long been lauded for its ability to help students facing financial struggles navigate the pitfalls Goldrick-Rab described.

Among the campus’ undergraduate student population, 32 percent are from families with an annual household income of $20,000 or less. Furthermore, 50 percent are from families in the lowest income quartile (combined annual household income of less than $38,000).

Yet, UTEP has continually vaulted students from low-income backgrounds into the top income quartiles. In 2017, a study released by the Brookings Institution ranked UTEP No. 1 for performing well in both research and social mobility. The study examined the performance of 342 public universities along two value dimensions that are commonly used to justify public investments in them: research productivity and student social mobility.

UTEP President Diana Natalicio and University leadership have spent the last decade analyzing student data to craft plans and programs to give financially challenged students a clearer path to degrees. The approach is four-pronged with focuses on academic advising, student employment, the UTEP Promise and financial aid.

Goldrick-Rab commended the University for a revamped advising model instituted last year that embeds social work students with advisers and financial aid officers to provide students with a holistic approach to their advisement.

“We ignore the potential for social work to help,” she said. “We act like that’s not our job, we say things like, ‘Well, we’re not a social service agency. We’re a college.’ But a college’s job is to help you graduate. If you need a social worker to help you do that, then you do that. That’s innovative and it’s forward-thinking. If UTEP has done it successfully, you need to help others understand how you did it.” 

Goldrick-Rab said the rest of the country can learn a lot from what UTEP has accomplished.

“We need examples, especially of four-year institutions that aren’t afraid to say, ‘You can have academic excellence, access and affordability,’” she said. “People have always said that’s not possible. UTEP is doing it. The first thing is you’re modeling it, you’re showing it can happen. The second thing is, any way you can get that story out there in as concrete a way as possible, do it. People not only need to know you did it, they need to know how you did it.”

Related story: A Path Forward: Unique Programs Address Students' Financial Challenges