Cost of College—a historical perspective

Change is in the air. The state fair is in full swing. Students and teachers are heading back to the classrooms. Even those of us who have been out of the classroom for some time have an urge to shop for back-to-school clothes. As usual, we are arguing about the effectiveness of K-12 education and the cost of college. A new twist, this year, is a debate about the Student Debt Relief Plan. Is it fair? Will it help?

Fall is in the Air

Here’s a little background. The true cost of a college education has not increased, dramatically, over the past 70-80 years. But, the cost to the individual students has.

College used to be affordable only to the privileged few until the GI Bill, enacted after WWII. Then, eight million veterans flocked to get their degrees. With a booming postwar economy, tax money flowed to build and finance colleges, and as direct aid to students in the form of grants. With the cost of college low, the enrollment boom continued through the 1960s and into the 1970s.

That began to change in the 1970s, due to inflation, an oil embargo, and a sputtering economy. At the same time, expectations increased that if you wanted a good job you needed a college education. For many years, now, high school graduates haven’t been able to go into the workforce and get high-paying jobs. (With current low unemployment rates, that may be changing. Employers may now be more willing to pay top-dollar for entry level workers.)

As more of the cost of higher education reverted to individual students, they and their families have taken on more debt to finance higher education. While the cost of college increased, the value of the minimum wage decreased. Working for the minimum wage, in 1970, you could work in the summer and earn more than enough to put yourself through a year of school. Now, at the current minimum wage, you’d have to work full-time for most of the year to afford a year of college. See:

In my opinion, it’s always better to avoid debt, than to hope that it might be forgiven at some point in the future. Community college continues to be a bargain. I encourage anyone who wants a two-year degree, or who wants to do the first two years toward their bachelor degree at a more reasonable price, to consider community colleges.

I went the pay-as-you go route to getting a undergraduate degree. I got my A.A. degree from what was, then, Minneapolis Junior College. Then, after my kids were in school and I didn’t have to pay for a babysitter, I finished my B.A. at the U. of M. in the early 1980s. College was still relatively inexpensive, at that time. I went into debt for my advanced degree in the 1990s, which I have long-since paid off.

But, I have no regrets about not getting in on the current freebie. The cost of my undergraduate degree was lower than a current B.A. would be, because colleges were getting a higher portion of their operating expenses directly from tax dollars.

Overall, I think this student loan forgiveness is a good thing. Sure, some took on too much debt and partied through college. But, others borrowed only what they needed and, once their student loans are forgiven, they will be better able to get married, buy a home, have a family, and put their own kids through college. That’s good for all of us.

Long-term, rather than periodically forgiving some student loans, I believe we should return to directly aiding colleges and students.

Fall Colors

One thought on “Cost of College—a historical perspective

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  1. A sentence from my dissertation helps explain the increase in a college education that you just wrote about. “From a peak funding calculation in 1980, the state of Minnesota reduced higher education allocations by 55.8% in 2011. According to Mortenson (2014), it is possible the state will be totally disinvested in higher education by 2037”.


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