Sunday, August 25, 2013

College Costs, Then and Now

In the fall of my college freshman year, 1977, I read an article in the newspaper that projected what college tuitions would become over the decades ahead. I remember laughing in disbelief that anyone would be able to pay the amounts of money listed.

Now I wish I had that clipping so I could see if its estimate was ludicrously high or, possibly, ludicrously low. Or even laughably accurate.

This is what set me to remembering:


I spent five years in college. My parents, with four daughters born within half a decade, said they would pay for the first two years of our time in college (thank you, Mom and Dad!).

At one of New York's state universities, I managed to pay for years three and four with a $500 scholarship, a summer job, and by becoming a resident assistant in year four, plus a $500 federally guaranteed student loan. The interest was well below the then-sky-high market rates, and it didn't begin accruing until after graduation.

My summer jobs were a bit cushy. I don't remember what the rate of pay was, but it was well above the then-minimum, which ranged between $2.30 and $3.35 during that period ($8.59 to $7.85 in 2012 dollars). I think it may have been somewhere around $5.00 an hour ($17.36). I worked about six weeks, full-time, in the summer of 1977 ($1,200, or $4,483), then 12 weeks in 1978-1980 ($2,400 each, which in 2012 dollars would be $8,332 in 1978, $7,473 in 1979, and $6,584 in 1980 -- yes, those were inflationary times. I'm sure there was a raise at some point, but I'm using $5.00 as an average).

Being an RA paid for my room and half my board. Year five was a bit more of a payment challenge -- the cushy job and the scholarship ended because I took a fifth year to finish school. I had to come up with tuition plus half my board, books, and living expenses. I took out a $2,500 student loan.

I finished in 1982 with $3,000 in debt, equivalent to $7,026 in 2012 dollars, entering the job market in the worst recession since the 1930s. It was, however, a brief one compared to recent years. As a double major in English literature/creative writing and history with no particular job prospects in mind, it didn't so much set me back as set me on the path that I ended up wandering down to this day.

In-state tuition for fall 2013 at a SUNY college will be $5,870, among the lowest in the country. Its equivalent in 1982 dollars is $2,360, though, so I'd say it's now relatively higher than it was in my time, since I could pay for tuition plus all my other expenses with $2,500. I'm also willing to bet that room and board have increased above the inflation rate since then as well. The university just recently tore down my old dorm to build a new one that meets the "expectations of today's students."

SUNY remains a bargain, though. The University of Minnesota's in-state tuition is $12,060; schools in the Minnesota state college system (the ones you've never heard of unless you live in Minnesota) are $6,667.

All inflation calculations made with my favorite inflation calculator, WestEgg.


Gina said...

At my alma mater, Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, the cost has risen above $40K a year, something that would probably make my father spin in his grave. He thought it was expensive in the mid-70's. My four years cost half of what one year now costs. I cannot imagine going to college now with how expensive it is. I doubt my father would agree to pay for it (if he were alive). I struggle with this increase: why is it so expensive? How are they justifying tuition increases? At the UofM the reasoning usually involves losing state funding. Dickinson is a private liberal arts college. I don't think it's fair to anyone to charge so much money, and as a result have students over their heads in debt by the time they graduate.

Michael Leddy said...

I’m not sure how it reflects on my family situation, but it never even occurred to anyone to think in terms of borrowing money when I went to college. I had a modest scholarship from a local organization, a much larger one from my college, and I worked in the summers and part-time in the school year (very part: twenty hours or so a week, eight or twelve during exams). My children graduated debt-free, because we saved like crazy. My son’s work as an RA for two years saved us a bundle too.

On-campus amenities are one reason for the rising cost of college. Another is the massive increase in administrative positions — layer upon layer of assistant and associate positions. There’s a terrible irony in all of it: as teaching salaries decline (with the increased use of contingent faculty, adjuncts), the cost of college goes up.