School of Education News

Goldrick-Rab to testify before U.S. Senate committee on college affordability

April 12, 2013

UW-Madison’s Sara Goldrick-Rab will be testifying before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Tuesday during a hearing titled, “The Challenge of College Affordability: The Student Lens.”

Sara Goldrick-RabGoldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology, is an expert on college affordability whose research explores policies aimed at reducing socioeconomic and racial inequalities.

“I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with the Senators. I’m also cognizant of the incredible responsibility involved, as this issue affects so many students, families and communities,” says Goldrick-Rab, who also is a Senior Scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, and an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty, the Center for Financial Security, the LaFollette School of Public Affairs, and the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research.

The meeting will be the committee’s fourth and final hearing in a series on college affordability and will focus on the student perspective in regards to the financial challenges students and their families face in accessing and completing a higher education.

An invitation sent to Goldrick-Rab to appear before the panel from Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who chairs the body, and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the committee’s ranking member, states: “In particular, we would like you to provide an overview of the literature, including your own research, on how the affordability challenge affects student decision making and postsecondary education outcomes, and how research findings can inform the Committee’s work in improving college access and success for all students, regardless of background.”

As per the senators’ request, Goldrick-Rab provided written testimony to the Committee on Health, Education and Pensions in advance of the hearing, which is to begin at 10 a.m. on Tuesday in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, northeast of the Capitol. That testimony is being distributed to members of the committee prior to the hearing, and Goldrick-Rab will then have an opportunity to provide a brief oral overview of her testimony to the panel.

In the summary of her written testimony, Goldrick-Rab writes that the “goal of federal financial aid is to help Americans achieve their fullest potential not only by opening the doors to college, but also by providing them with the financial support necessary to complete their studies. Students and families are resoundingly clear — as a nation we are not meeting this goal. Research indicates that a lack of college affordability is frequently affecting educational decisions, and discouraging the most talented students from low-income families from even applying to great colleges and universities that match their abilities.”

She continues: “Much of federal financial aid, including the Pell Grant and tax credits, arrives too late, comes with requirements that reduce its effectiveness, and makes a commitment to students that is too small and insufficiently matched by efforts from states and higher education institutions. Just as troubling, consumer confidence in the financial aid system is low. It is difficult to count on these resources when they are constantly threatened and ever changing; they give the appearance of a Congress unsure of what it is trying to accomplish. Your leadership is required to marshal and triage all available resources, direct them to where they can be most effective, and build a financial aid system that is worthy of our great nation.”

Goldrick-Rab is an expert on these issues, and she and colleagues recently released another analysis of the Wisconsin Scholars Grant (WSG) program, which is intended to increase the size of students' financial aid packages and reduce student debt.  The privately funded program is distributed by lottery among eligible first-year undergraduates attending Wisconsin’s 13 public universities.

The analysis of the program indicates that need-based financial grants are modestly effective at inducing students to remain enrolled, earn slightly more credits, and get somewhat better grades, and that these effects are likely stronger when students receive more aid.

In the summary of her testimony provided to the Committee on Health, Education and Pensions, Goldrick-Rab stresses three points: that need-based grants matter for students’ educational success; that student loan program should not be used as a piggy bank to finance other aid; and that Congress and the states “must reverse the unconscionable trend of pushing people to take on levels of debt they are uncomfortable with, simply because they wish to become better educated.”

Others who are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the committee include: Ethan Senack, Higher Education Associate, U.S. Public Interest Research Group; Derrica Donelson, Student, Lipscomb University; Vivica Brooks, student, Bowie State University.

The hearing is scheduled to be webcast.

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