Focusing on inequities at universities

A well-known higher education researcher joined Temple’s College of Education.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher eduation professor, and founding director of The Hope Center, sits at her desk. Goldrick-Rab FILE PHOTO | PATRICK CLARK

When Sara Goldrick-Rab attended graduate school, she was known as the “peanut butter sandwich lady.”

She would make sandwiches and bring them to Prevention Point Philadelphia, an organization that offers clean needles for medicinal use at a low cost. The program sets up weekly on the corner of 3rd Street and Girard Avenue.

Goldrick-Rab, who has done extensive research on inequality, most recently within higher education, joined Temple’s College of Education in July and will continue her research here. She hopes to start teaching courses at Temple in Fall 2017.

Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, Goldrick-Rab studied sociology at the College of William & Mary and earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004.

Goldrick-Rab became interested in sociology when reading about divorce, something her family had just experienced, in a class at William & Mary.

“I was reading all the research about what happens to children of divorce and I was immediately attracted to sociology because it was about real people’s lives,” said Goldrick-Rab, who transferred to George Washington University to finish her undergraduate degree.

She said inequality piqued her interest.

“I think I’ve always kind of understood the privileges I have and that were given to me because my grandparents went to college,” she said. “There was a legacy in my family of college-going that I always understood to be a big deal.”

She didn’t decide to study education until she needed to earn money for graduate school. Goldrick-Rab’s adviser approached her about a grant he received to study community colleges.

Once she stepped foot on a community college campus, all of her studies about inequality came together.

“There’s not that many people studying the sociology of education and particularly of college students,” Goldrick-Rab said. “I also could feel the bubbling of, ‘Something is going to happen with inequality.’ I could tell the prices were going to get high.”

Dr. Goldrick-Rab didn’t originally want to be a professor.

“I was a doer,” Goldrick-Rab said. “I didn’t think being a professor would let me be a doer.”

When she got close to her final year at Penn, multiple colleagues emailed her about a professor position at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Each time she received the email, she deleted it.

“I said, ‘Thank you very much. I am not qualified,’” Goldrick-Rab said. “It kept coming.”

She decided to apply for the job, and a few months after finishing her Ph.D., she moved to Madison. Goldrick-Rab stayed with the university for 12 years as a professor and researcher because they gave her an “intellectual home,” she said.

“My students knew more than I did,” Goldrick-Rab said. “That is so humbling. I went home after teaching the first couple times and just cried because of how insecure I felt, but what it did was push me to be a much better faculty member.”

During her time at UW-Madison, Goldrick-Rab created the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which is a research center for improving student equity in higher education.

Goldrick-Rab began to think about leaving the university when tenure policies were changed. The sociology professor began to express her concerns through Twitter.

She reached out to students through the social media platform to let them know what was happening at their university last June, and she received backlash from students and faculty alike.

“[The university] thought that I was going out to prospective students to keep them from going to Madison because I was mad about tenure, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Goldrick-Rab said.

She began looking for new positions and receiving offers. When Temple received R1 research status from the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, it coincided perfectly with Goldrick-Rab’s job search.

“It’s hard to find researchers who also love teaching,” said Dr. Gregory Anderson, dean of the College of Education. “With the immense quality of her work in research, amount of grants she has received and impact she has made on the state and federal level, Sara checks off all of those boxes.”

Goldrick-Rab said Temple is the only university in Philadelphia other than the Community College of Philadelphia that makes sense for her research. As the most affordable schools in the city, they attract the kinds of students with whom she is used to working.

To continue her research on students going hungry in college, Goldrick-Rab started working with Philabundance to begin providing food to undergraduates and eventually start a program.

“I will work with them to figure out how to do it best, how to do it effectively, then we’ll study and once we figure out what is working, I will write about it,” she said.

Since Goldrick-Rab left UW Madison before the closing of the HOPE Lab, she still has to finish some work with the lab before she can start teaching at Temple.

“I didn’t get to tie the neat little bow around the last 12 years and that means I have a lot of unfinished work,” she said.

With the release of her first solo book, “Paying the Price,” which looks at how unaffordable higher education fails college students, Goldrick-Rab will start a book tour Sept. 22 in Milwaukee. She has events booked as late as April 2017.

“There are so many people who have their eyes closed so tightly to what is going on in the world,” Goldrick-Rab said. “I need to go open those eyes.”

Emily Scott can be reached at

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