By Joe Rector

Attending college is an expensive venture for young people these days. My two children made it through before the prices skyrocketed; the cash we forked out was still close to a king’s ransom, but nothing like what students face today. Somehow we managed to get through without owing stacks of money.

My brother Jim and I moved into a dorm on the campus of Tennessee Tech University in 1974. Although the school was only 100 miles from home, it seemed to be another world away. We rented a small refrigerator from the school for $20 and stored our food and drink in it. That first dorm room cost $110 per quarter. It had air conditioning, sometimes, but no phone, and cable television and Internet were still years away from creation. The bathroom was down the hall and served all the residents of the floor.

Most of my meals consisted of bologna and cheese sandwiches. My older brother Dal and his wife lived in another dorm where he served as head resident. On most evenings, Brenda cooked supper for three of us; Jim had left school after the first quarter. She’d also make a gallon pitcher of tea that I stuck in my refrigerator. On Friday nights, I splurged and bought hamburgers and fries for the evening meal.

Registering for classes required patience, varying strategies, and a checkbook. As best I remember, the cost for a full class load and student fees equaled about $135. The next step was to travel to the bookstore in search of textbooks for classes. I always tried to find used books for two reasons: important material was already underlined and the cost was a fraction of new textbooks. I’d hold my breath as the stack was totaled and prayed that I wasn’t spending more than $50-$75. The sad part of the book buying was that when the term was over, I could count on getting, at most, ½ the price that I’d paid only three months earlier.

Jim and I left for school driving a 1960 Studebaker Lark. On a late night trip back to Knoxville one Saturday, the car engine threw a rod trying to pull Monterey Mountain just outside Cookeville. For the rest of the year, I had no vehicle for transportation. Trips home were limited to times when I could hitch a ride with someone going toward Knoxville. Eventually, we got our old ’54 Chevy back in running condition, and I traveled in it back to Tech.

Mother made a whopping $10,000 a year as a teacher, and she managed to juggle finances enough to get us in college. Jim and I worked during the summers to earn money that would help with college expenses. Each month, Mother would deposit $100 into my checking account. That was the money for everything I needed for the month. Yes, that included food, school supplies, clothing, and entertainment. Somehow, I managed to make it to the end of each month with some money left. Too many guys received their money from parents and squandered it on booze, girls, and pinball machines, and I vowed not to ever fall into the same mess.

After 4 years of school, I graduated with a BS degree in English education. After worrying all summer, Knox County Schools hired me to teach high school English at Doyle High School. My yearly salary was $7200, and I felt rich. My next goal was to make $10,000 a year. By the time I retired with 30 years of teaching, my yearly salary had swollen to a whopping $48.000.

Amy and I promised our children that we would provide them with a four-year college education. We expected them to work in the summer and to be frugal with their money. Both of them did work and did graduate. Yes, sometimes money was tight, but I figured that if my mother could sacrifice for our education that we could do the same.

Today, the cost of a year’s school at Tennessee Tech for an in-state student is $17,053. That includes tuition of $8353, a dorm room for $4590, and a meal plan for $4110. I’m not sure that I’d be able to attend college now, nor do I know whether or not Amy and I could pay for our children to go. It would take a great deal of work and dedication by all of us, and maybe the kids would have to work part time during the school year. Still, I’d try to cover expenses without their having to take on student loans.

College costs continue to soar. Before long, an education might become just another thing that the “one percent” can afford. The rest of us middle class folks will have to find ways to make a living in a high tech world without that college degree.