When my father set out for the University of Vermont in 1955, he drove to Burlington with a small carload of books and clothes, along with a full semester’s tuition bill of $750. He’d worked as a busboy the summer before, earning nearly enough—$1,400, plus a modest Catskills room and board—to cover two semesters’ worth of tuition. He ate at a diner near campus, or in the kitchen of a local woman who served Friday-night chicken to hungry undergraduates for 25 cents a meal. He worked every summer at the same upstate resort, and graduated without a cent of debt.
By the time I left for college, in 1980, tuition rates had risen precipitously. Annual fees at Georgetown were roughly $10,000, or about seven times greater than those my father had encountered a generation earlier. I was lucky, though. Having paid their way through college, my parents were determined to set aside funds for my brother’s and my education. So from our births, they carefully saved around $2,200 a year in each of our names, enough so that we, too, could graduate debt free. It wasn’t easy for my parents, but it was manageable.