Interview with Social Class Scholar Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

Tori Svoboda

March 17, 2015

The Socioeconomic & Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community (SCIHEKC) is featuring a “Social Class Scholar” on our blog in the 2014-2015 academic year, and so far we have explored the work of Dr. Buffy SmithDr. Will Barratt, Dr. Jane Van Galen, and Dr. Rashné Jehangir. Our next featured scholar, Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, shares her perspectives with us below.

Are you attending the NASPA 2015 Conference in New Orleans? Check out Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s pre-conference with our SCIHEKC chair, Clare Cady!

What brought you to this work of studying social class in higher education?

My family and a bit of luck. My grandfather was one of four in a family without much money. He was the only one to attend college, and it changed all of our lives for the better. Also, even though I went to grad school to study gender and labor market discrimination, I ended up studying community colleges when my advisor received a grant for a new project. Once I set foot on the campus of Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois, then traveled to Miami Dade College, then Tallahassee, I was hooked—all of the rhetoric about college opportunities collides with reality at these places. I love the conflict and set out to explore it.

How has your scholarship evolved over time? What surprised you or might surprise our readers about your findings?

Over time I’ve moved from examining student behavior in isolation to systematically examining how it is affected by policies and practices. I’ve been struck by how devolved many critical policies are; in other words how much of the actual implementation is left up to the discretion of institutions. That entire process is overlooked and it contributes to a lot of messiness and inequality. How many books have been written on the key frontline workers at colleges and universities—people like your readersand the role they play in expanding opportunity or perpetuating inequality? None, as far as I know. We have to take them and their jobs much more seriously.

What are you writing/reading these days to deepen your knowledge on the topic?

I’m writing a book called When America Goes to College, and it should be published in fall 2016. It’s about what’s happened to the financial aid system over time and how students from low-income families experience it. It’s based on work I’ve done with my team at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab since 2008; we’ve been following 3,000 Wisconsin Pell recipients closely and watching how they’ve moved in and out of higher education. 

I read broadly on poverty and higher education and right now I’m most excited about Kathryn Edin’s latest, It’s Not Like I’m Poor.  But I’m also in the midst of Michael Crow's Designing the New American University because I’m thinking about the benefits and costs of dramatically scaling up enrollment.

Can you identify some "best practices" happening in college or university settings that you believe are making a difference in eliminating some of the opportunity gaps?

That sort of work is our full focus at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Right now we’re continuing our work evaluating grant programs, which definitely do seem to help students and their families. But we are also beginning to study emergency financial aid programs, and efforts to help more students retain their financial aid by meeting satisfactory academic progress standards and refilling their FAFSAs. We are also conducting a multi-sited ethnographic study at four universities to learn about practices that really change the daily lived experiences of low and moderate-income students.

What advice would you offer student affairs professionals regarding social class in higher education?

Question your assumptions on a daily basis. Think that low-income students must be OK since they get the most grant aid? Ask them how they are making ends meet, and whether they are ever hungry or unsure where they will sleep next. Ask them how they support their own families, including their parents. You might be stunned by what you find out. I know I was.

Follow Dr. Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab (@wihopelab) on Twitter!

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