BREAKING: College Students Are Broke!

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Sara Goldrick-Rab is upset that college students are broke.

In a Cap Times article describing her recent research, it is ominously reported that “half of community college students risk hunger, homelessness.” But the data buried under the headline and after the jumpline are pretty par-for-the-course in the eyes of anyone who went to college.

Her first set of questions deals with a buzzword of late: “food insecurity.”

For example, anywhere between a quarter to nearly half of respondents to an email by the UW sociology professor say they bought less food, ate less food or fewer meals, or were hungry at one time or another because they couldn’t afford “balanced” meals.

If a skeptical reader wonders whether I’m just some rich kid whose mom and dad lavished his bank account with weekly windfalls during college, it’s quite the opposite. I would’ve answered yes to every food question Goldrick-Rab’s email survey asked – both in college and beyond. This is despite the fact that I worked a full-time job throughout college, often adding another on the side.

Apparently the age-old meme about college being as much about ramen and Romas as reading and writing is now a crusade within the Ivory Towers of academia.

The next set of questions deals with “housing insecurity.”

While 52 percent reported difficulty paying rent, only 1 percent said they stayed in a shelter (duration of the stay wasn’t defined), didn’t know where they’d sleep, or didn’t have a home. While the headline paints a picture of a seething mass of college students sleeping on park benches, the reality is that the vast majority simply had problems paying their rent. This is not a travesty, it’s a longtime reality through which most young people can and do trudge, along the way learning things that colleges don’t teach.

Let’s not ignore that this study was conducted via email. The fact that an academic study was done via email is…strange. Anyone with six credits in statistics would confirm that the method lends itself to self-selection bias, and critically injures the study’s legitimacy.

Those one-out-of-100 cases in which a community college student was “homeless” are almost certainly much more nuanced than the story portrays. Perhaps an individual’s roommates got sick of a freeloader; perhaps they were honestly struggling.

In short, the story tries to hype a problem that has heretofore been a hallmark of college life – being broke and making do. I personally attest to that, I just never felt compelled to complain about years of skipping breakfast and lunch because my checking account was full of goose eggs and my credit cards were maxed out.

Nor did I seek out food stamps or other assistance programs, which the Cap Times article inevitably suggests as a solution to an age-old problem: college students being broke.

The study and article totally ignore a more pressing problem: the rising cost of higher education.

With outstanding student loan debt easily topping $1 trillion nationally, the real issue isn’t that college students need to turn to cheap food and skip a lunch now and then. The real issue is that many graduates are saddled with a debt the size of a home mortgage, prolonging the poverty of college years after graduation.

It is progressive administrators who have jacked the cost of tuition from their Ivory Tower perches, overseen by progressives in government bureaucracies, and using progressive dictates to squelch free-market competition from alternative colleges. Downward pressure on tuition inflation has instead come from dictates from legislators like Republicans in Wisconsin.

Goldrick-Rab so disapproved of those measures that she went on a highly publicized series of Twitter rants attacking Republicans. She compared Gov. Scott Walker to Hitler, Republicans to fascists, and trolled random high school graduates celebrating the end of their senior years by tweeting, encouraging them to find a different school than UW-Madison.

She chose to risk her credibility in a fit of rage over successful Republican efforts to limit tenure privileges of professors who work on the public dime and other changes to the UW System that many Wisconsinites believed were long past due, including a tuition freeze.

None of these measures have damaged education in Wisconsin. A stroll through any UW campus or tech school will reveal that there are no piles of garbage, students sleeping under newspapers on park benches, or biker gangs commandeering student unions a la the dystopian scene of “Hell Valley” in Back to the Future II. Times are as fat as ever in academia.

SG-R’s Twitter rants are not an ancillary issue; as the Inside Higher Ed post describes, she was an erstwhile respected sociologist. That she unrepentantly behaved this way on the most public of forums is a profound statement about her lack of professionalism, dearth of self-control, and – most importantly – her lack of respect for her role as a prominent researcher at the UW.

For various reasons, including the source of the data, it’s quite easy to dismiss this study as just another hyped-up non-issue by an Ivory Tower academic who discredited herself in spectacular fashion.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s a communication specialist with experience in the private sector and on various campaigns. He's the communications director for the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy. Commentary here is strictly his own.