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College, Then and Now

Kristine Hayes  |  August 15, 2017

WORKING AT A COLLEGE is a bit like being in a time warp. Every year, I get older, but the students don’t. The 20-somethings I deal with make me realize just how much times have changed since I attended college.

Tuition. When I was a college student in the 1980s, 529 plans didn’t exist. Of course, tuition costs were also much lower, so there wasn’t as much need for a college savings plan.

Because I had to pay my own way through school, I chose to attend a local community college to get my basic prerequisite coursework out of the way. Tuition was $19 per credit or, if you attended fulltime, $209 per term. Back then, if you paid fulltime tuition, you could take as many credits as you wanted. Whether you took 12 credits or 24, it cost the same. In an effort to finish school as quickly as possible, I often loaded up on coursework, taking 14 to 18 credits per term.

These days, tuition at the community college I attended stands at $110 per credit and there’s no longer a break for fulltime students. Taking more credits means paying more tuition. Of course, tuition at an in-state community college is still a bargain. That’s especially true compared to a private four-year school like the one I work at, where tuition currently runs $53,900 per year.

Financial help. I paid for most of my education through merit scholarships. I applied for as many as I was eligible for, most of which were worth $250 to $500. I earned scholarships through my involvement with the 4-H program and the American Dairy Goat Association, as well as other organizations. Those small awards provided enough money to pay for all my tuition for the two years I attended community college, and also covered the cost of the used textbooks I purchased. In addition, I worked part-time at the college as a student adviser, earning $3.35 an hour. The main benefit of the job was that it allowed me to register for classes before other students did, ensuring I could always reserve a place in the classes I needed to take.

Today’s college students have access to over $3 billion in private scholarship money. But the overwhelming majority of financial aid comes from the $46 billion awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. The average cost of a textbook rose 82% between 2002 and 2013. One result: A $250 scholarship wouldn’t cover one semester’s worth of books for the average student these days.

The students who work for me now make $11.25 an hour—more than three times what I made back in 1985. Even though the average cost of tuition and fees at most universities increased 179% between 1996 and 2015, a part-time job can still provide students with a way to cover some of the fees and expenses of college, so they don’t have to take out so much in loans.

Dorm life. When I’d finished taking my prerequisite classes at a community college, I moved away from home and enrolled at an in-state university to get my bachelor’s degree. I was fortunate that my best friend from high school lived in a house located just off campus. She let me sublet a bedroom in the house for $75 a month. I didn’t own a car, so I rode a bicycle to class every day. My college diet consisted mostly of peanut butter sandwiches and Top Ramen soup.

Fast forward to 2017. Many of the students I work with reside in dorm rooms nicer than the apartment I currently live in. The college cafeteria is filled with food choices to satisfy every diner—from grass-fed beef entrees to organic, hand-picked local produce. Many students still travel around campus on bicycles, but the parking lot is filled with cars outfitted with license plates from around the country. Owning a car as a teenager is far more common now than it was in the 1980s.

Seeing what students have access to these days sometimes makes me envious. But knowing that I escaped from college with no debt makes me thankful for growing up in a simpler time.

Kristine Hayes is a departmental manager at a small, liberal arts college in Portland, Ore. Her previous blogs include Growing Up (Part I) and To Buy or Not to Buy.

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