Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream

One of the most sustained and vigorous public debates today is about the value – and, crucially, the price – of college. But an unspoken, outdated assumption underlies all sides of this debate: if a young person works hard enough, they’ll be able to get a college degree and be on the path to a good life.

That’s simply not true anymore, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, and with Paying the Price, she shows in damning detail exactly why. Quite simply, college is far too expensive for many people today, and the confusing mix of federal, state, institutional, and private financial aid leaves countless students without the resources they need to pay for it. Drawing on an unprecedented study of 3,000 young adults who entered public colleges and universities in Wisconsin in 2008 with the support of federal aid and Pell Grants, Goldrick-Rab reveals the devastating effect of these shortfalls. Half the students in the study left college without a degree, while less than twenty percent finished within five years. The cause of their problems, time and again, was lack of money. Unable to afford tuition, books, and living expenses, they worked too many hours at outside jobs, dropped classes, took time off to save money, even went without adequate food or housing. In a heartbreaking number of cases, they simply left school – not with a degree, but with crippling debt.

We can fix this problem. Goldrick-Rab closes the book by laying out a number of possible solutions, including a public sector-focused “first degree free” program. What’s not an option, this powerful, polemical book shows, is doing nothing, and continuing to crush the dreams of a generation of young people.


"Goldrick-Rab's findings don't simply cast doubt about this aspect of the American Dream. They blow it sky-high."
- Times Higher Education

"This cogent and persuasive argument for a more humane and efficient program to make higher education accessible to all capable students draws upon thorough research and an array of personal portraits. Highly recommended for parents and taxpayers."
- Library Journal

“Necessary reading for anyone concerned about the fate of American higher education.” Read more
- Kirkus Book Review

"Goldrick-Rab is a Temple University professor - a scholar-advocate known for her outspokenness on issues including tenure and the fate of public universities. This book, however, is grounded in data, not rhetoric." Read more.
- National Public Radio

"Paying the Price is a landmark book that sheds light on the numerous contradictions, inconsistencies and problems with the current financial aid system. An attempt to encapsulate the problems of the American financial aid crisis in 260 pages is no small task. But in all, her book accurately conveys how the current financial aid system is a betrayal of the American Dream."
- Quillette

Paying the Price

"Paying the Price is an invaluable resource, chock-full of data and empathy."
~ Yes! Magazine

Paying the Price is a must-read…”

~ Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón, president and alumnus of Miami Dade College

“Goldrick-Rab’s important book should be read by policymakers, students, and parents…”

~ Diane Ravitch

“…Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream offers the first truly comprehensive accounting of the toll extracted from a generation of middle and working class Americans who cannot possibly keep pace with the expense of attending college…”

~ Melissa Harris-Perry

“…I just wanted to share my story and thank you for the IMPORTANT work you and everyone you work with are doing. You are giving voice to students like myself that felt helpless…”

~ Pedro Ruiz

“Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s narrative puts a face to the national higher education cost crisis…”

~ F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University

Paying the Price is an urgent and necessary text. Through rigorous research and careful analysis, Sara Goldrick-Rab shows how the American Dream is structurally compromised by the exorbitant costs of higher education and a thoroughly dysfunctional financial aid system…”

~ Marc Lamont Hill, author of Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond

"Goldrick-Rab wrote a page-turning best-seller about student aid. I've been in the student aid business a long time and never thought this possible. It's a great book: read it."
~ Alex Usher, Higher Education Strategy