College Costs 50 Years Ago

A while back, when I was changing residences, I found an old college admissions-related book that I bought when I was a high school freshman. (This is where I usually insert some ageist remark about “when dinosaurs walked the earth,” which I will eschew here.) Anyway, I thought it might be fun to take a quick look at what a book like that had to say back then and compare it to the, some say, “frightful” situation today.

The title of the book is How to Be Accepted by the College of Your Choice (Completely Revised 1961-1962 Edition), by Benjamin Fine (Paperback – 419 pages, (March 1960), Popular Library – Out of Print [obviously]).

Now why would I want to discuss an out-of-print book from 1960? Well, because it’s great fun to see what the state of higher education was like five decades ago, when many current parents of college-bound high schoolers were just little kids. I rediscovered this tiny-print, now-musty-smelling volume in a box out in my garage, where most of my lost important stuff was hiding. I remembered it fondly because I bought it (for 75 cents!) when I was in ninth grade and obsessing about how I was going to get into MIT to study nuclear physics (yeah, right). See? Elite college admissions angst isn’t a recent phenomenon.

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The cover blurbs proclaim “As many as nine out of ten applicants are rejected by the colleges of their first choice.” Things were tough even in 1960 for Ivy League and other selective school applicants. “The best-selling book in its field!” It may well have been one of the only books in its field back then, very unlike today. Also, “231 splendid colleges seeking applicants!” “Splendid”? ‘Gotta love those exclamation points. And let’s not forget “A Special Bonus Section showing for the first time how your application will be judged against others by nearly 1,000 accredited colleges in the U.S.A.” I’m wondering why I would want my application to be judged by nearly 1,000 accredited colleges. Time to call in Strunk and White.

A quick tour of the table of contents reveals a book not all that different from those of the same genre today. We find chapters on high school grades, the SAT, ACT, high school curricula, extracurriculars, recommendations, college visits, applications, an in-depth college profile (Connecticut College), money matters, and an application timetable. The usual fare. One chapter did catch my eye, though: Quota Systems. In it, I found this amazing statement from the author:

“I asked the country’s accredited colleges to tell me frankly if they employed quota systems. The 16% replying affirmatively were for the most part Southern institutions that either barred or discouraged Negroes from attending. No Northern universities admitted to quotas against the colored races, and yet it is common knowledge that such barriers exist in Vermont as well as in Virginia. No West Coast universities told me that students of Mexican or Japanese ancestry were denied entry-but surveys show that they are. An atmosphere of hush-hush and shame pervades when quotas are formulated on the basis of faith, nationality, or skin pigmentation; and it is particularly ironic that institutions of higher learning, which might be expected to lead the fight against discrimination, sometimes tend to foster it, in class, on the campus, and in fraternities and sororities.”

After reading this, I promised myself that I would recall those words whenever I pine for “the good old days” of my youth. It’s hard for me to imagine that that text was written a mere 50 years ago, here in America. We’ve come a long way.

Here’s the fun part. The book includes a large section called “The Fact Finder” that lists 976 colleges along with the weighted importance of such admission factors as grades, test scores, recommendations, interviews, legacy connections, and so forth. Most interestingly for me, though, is the posting of each school’s costs-tuition, room and board, and living expenses. Just for fun, here’s a sampling.

For each school listed here (in no particular order), the 1960-1961 total-school-year costs represent roughly the entire student budget of tuition, room and board, plus sundry living expenses. Even when adjusted for inflation, these figures are breathtaking:

School
1960-61 Costs
Princeton University
$2,260
Harvard University
$2,370
Yale University
$2,300
Swarthmore College
$2,070
Williams College
$2,200
Amherst College
$1,885
Penn State University
(resident)
$1,260
Penn State University
(non-resident)
$1,660
UC Berkeley
(resident)
$680
UC Berkeley
(non-resident)
$900
Michigan State University
(resident)
$1,020
Michigan State University
(non-resident)
$1,530
University of Texas
(resident)
$925
University of Texas
(non-resident)
$1,185
University of Chicago
$1,740
Duke University
$1,475

I don’t have to tell those of you well-informed parents and students out there what the costs are today. Take the Ivy League, for instance. The total student budget for Princeton University for the current school year (2010-2011) is $48,580. Compare that to $2,260 Princeton charged 50 years ago.

I’m not smart enough to do the math, but my instincts tell me that the percentage increase in Princeton’s student budget over the past five decades has far exceeded inflation. Ya think? I wonder if the quality of education has increase similarly.

So, for all you nostalgia-buff parents (or grandparents), consider what The Good Old Days really meant . . . for better or worse.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.