Saturday, August 7, 2010

When College was Cheap, Nobody Went

In 1903, the average person received a life total of about nine years of schooling. About 6.5% graduated from high school. Only around 2% of college-aged kids attended college.

Aside from students living with Ypsilanti relatives, most of the students at EMU in 1903 lived in a boarding house. Some had in-house home-made "meal plans" in their boarding house and others ate at a separate house that only provided meals.

Per one ad in the October Normal News a room in a boarding house was 75 cents to one dollar per student per week [$18 to $24 today, or $72 to $96 per month]. "Table board" was $2 to $3 per week [$47 to $70, or $188 to $280 per month]. At least one yearbook from this period, in its "jokes" section, pokes fun at what it characterizes as meagre fare to be had at boarding houses.

Tuition per 12-week term at EMU was...$3.

Even after adjusting for inflation since 1903, college tuition seems absurdly cheap. And yet almost no one attended from the cohort of college-aged kids. Is this an indication that the standard of living in a mostly agrarian society was simply too low to spare the money? Or are there any other explanations?

--October Normal News 1903


jml said...

I can think of two additional factors. First, a young person in a growing country would have lots of opportunities. Sitting in a classroom for four years might have seemed like a bad investment when they could go out and earn money instead. Even /mumble/ years ago, my peers who went to work in auto factories were making more than me my first few years out of college.

Second, it seems like coming up the ranks was valued over short circuiting that experience with book learning e.g. the company president who started in the mail room.

DD said...

jml: That makes a lot of sense. The analogy to the opportunity to work (and actually have a good life) in an auto factory back then is a good one. Why bother sitting in class for an indistinct possible job when you could go earn a good salary, buy a home, get married immediately? Great point.

I've read of at least one case of an Ypsilanti store employee (clerk) who later bought the place and ran it for years. Was it easier back then to do the mailroom-to-boardroom ascent? I kind of have a hunch it was....