Paying the Price with Vulnerable Funds

Sara Goldrick-Rab's book, Paying the Price, underscores how the crisis in HE severely impacts the personal and academic lives of students. Her student-centered research provides perspective that helps shape her reform recommendations. This approach to HE reform is not a new tactic.
The data-driven personalization offered by such advocacy research is also popular with those that hope to reform HE through the faculty narrative, who, like students, both have a stake in HE and suffer the current crisis. In concert with faculty-centered researchers, Goldrick-Rab calls for more money to fund the reforms she believes will improve the current HE model.

In the introduction to, Paying the Price, she says, “The price of college must be lowered much further than the current system allows. Money must be brought to the table - there is no way around it.”

This current system is institution-centered, expensive, underfunded, without sufficient transparent information and complex in terms of its finance and student aid apparatus - among other serious deficits.

But whether the research is student or faculty oriented, if advocates aim to improve the lot of these individuals, they must be more creative in their solutions. They must do more than devise system tweaks and demand additional or reallocated funding. There is a serious problem with such an approach, it suffers from what might be called the Vulnerable Funding Problem.

The Vulnerable Funding Problem

Let's suppose Goldrick-Rab gets what she wants - more money to fund her reforms (including her Free Two-year College Option (F2CO), which is conspicuously absent from her solutions in Chapter 10 of, Paying the Price). The sources for this funding will come from the taxpaying or philanthropic public. Unfortunately, since the HE crisis is in part a consequence of dependence upon these vulnerable funding sources, it seems unwise to continue to tap them, for yet more money.

The Great Recession showed the effects of local and global economics on HE - including reduced public funding and venture capitalist inroads. Political differences among parties and levels of government also stress HE finance policy. Funding is likewise affected by changes in the public’s view of the value of HE and slants in philanthropic philosophy. If advocacy for the individuals in HE (students and faculty) is sincere, then we must adopt a model that does not depend upon substantial funding from these sources. We need a more reliable, flexible financial model.

Consider, one of the philanthropic solutions Goldrick-Rab mentions in Chapter 10. She claims to be concerned about student access to adequate food since this affects their performance and attendance. So she calls for the money necessary to extend the National School Lunch Program to colleges and universities, but in the meantime, “Emergency aid programs are an especially promising approach for retaining more students in HE. ...The Angel Fund used to serve students at tribal colleges and universities until it ran out of financial support. We need many more such efforts.” To suggest reform be predicated upon such vulnerable finance sources is not only naive, it’s irresponsible.

Further, under the current system, whether it's F2CO or any of the Promise strategies from the White House to Tennessee, tuition-free HE can only be achieved and maintained through consistent, adequate funding, acquired through increased taxes or the reallocation of existing tax revenue. But the reallocation option merely adds another level of vulnerability since it results in decreased financial support for other competing social obligations (e.g., health care, social security, infrastructure, or whatever program the money is taken from).

Consider the Tennessee Promise as an example. The program is funded by proceeds from the state lottery. Prior to the introduction of the Promise all lottery profits were used to fund early childhood, afterschool and community learning centre education programs. Unless Tennesseans are buying more lottery tickets since the Promise was introduced, these programs must now be receiving less funding from the lottery source. It’s a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, which ultimately harms other social initiatives and interests that may one day push back, thereby making any reallocated funding strategy vulnerable.

There are other problems with the Tennessee Promise, but my focus here is on how this initiative and all other attempts to make HE tuition-free are subject to the Vulnerable Funding Problem.

The PSA Solution

As Goldrick-Rab says, what we need are “sustainable shifts in college funding.” Her idea of a sustainable shift is to introduce new taxes or eliminate existing tax credits in order to raise the $70-$100 billion in additional funding she estimates is needed for her reforms. The model she wants to reform is not sustainable, and even if it were adequately financed the Vulnerable Funding Problem would persist. The model certainly can't be relied upon to provide universally-accessible, expense-free HE, as required by international rights law, since it is constantly threated with underfunding.

There must be a wide margin of error in the finance of HE so that funding levels can be more reliable and flexible. The only way to achieve this is to dramatically lower the cost of providing HE - not ask for more money from vulnerable sources to fund reform. If the financing required were low enough then HE would be a less likely target for cost-saving measures during times of recession and as political platform during elections. It would be less of a burden to philanthropy and less of a competing public value.  

If the cost to provide HE was reduced by 50 to 75% there would be a substantial margin for error when economic, political, public or philanthropic vagaries affect finance; thereby offering greater funding stability.

Goldrick-Rab says of one of her reform suggestions, “Simplifying the FAFSA is a technocratic fix, not a transformative one - it won’t bring new money to the table.” Suppose we take the $70-100 billion Goldrick-Rab needs for her “sustainable shift” or the $146 billion per year she notes states should be contributing to/investing in HE and divide it up among the 500,000 or so faculty in the current system. That would be between $140,000-$292,000 per year to operate a professional practice in philosophy, history, economics, mathematics, law or any number of other disciplines.

Or suppose we take the $240 billion in grants, loans, work-study and tax credits she indicates is applied against the cost of HE for families, or the $8,000 (college) and $12,000 (university) that remains for them to pay in annual net tuition (after the $240 billion as been subtracted). Paid to an academic in private practice, that’s $480,000 per year for me to operate a philosophy practice providing the same services I did as a lecturer in universities.

I can operate a professional private academic practice (in philosophy) for $120,000 or less per year. This means there is enough funding in the $240 billion alone to finance 4 times as many faculty as there are now in America. Without constructing a single additional building or even spending the billions needed to repair the existing HE infrastructure, and without another single institutional faculty employee being hired, we could have an additional 1.5 million faculty providing HE service.

This is transformative change that requires less money from the current system (not more) and works to solve other problems that affect quality and access in HE, such as the available facilities and faculty (exploitation).

Such a reduction would make possible true universally-accessible HE, with financial support for not only tuition but also the opportunity costs associated with pursuit of HE. Such a reduction also means that current funding for social obligations other than HE would not only remain unmolested, but their available potential funding could increase. The research I have done reveals that PSA can achieve such a cost reduction. This is advocacy for students, faculty and society.


  1. Well argued. The big advantage for PSA over other reform suggestions I've read is that it funds itself. This makes the model practicable, not some political posture or headlined show.
    Funding for HE is vulnerable, especially so in the Recession times, as the current model of funding HE is largely subsidy education for the richer (college cost has risen higher and higher for the working class) using the money collected from the whole society, the majority of which is the middle & working class. This is other than unfair, unbalanced. An unbalanced model of funding is not sustainable. As soon as the economy is less than ok, the unbalance is aggravated and there occures a crisis for HE finance.
    Therefore, asking for more funding to address the current problems is like a baby crying for more attention. Better yet let the baby learn to walk and eat on its own.


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