When my father died, I was eight years old, the third of four children. Mother repeatedly made it clear that if we wanted to go to college like our parents—and we must—we would have to study hard to obtain scholarships. The notion became so ingrained that I grew up presuming excellent grades and college were the ultimate goals in life. Mother’s admonishments worked: All four of us attended Ivy League or Seven Sisters schools.
That was in the middle of the 20th century. Though college was considered very expensive, it was still within the reach of middle-class families. In the late 50’s my annual comprehensive fee was around $5,000. A couple who didn’t need to pay rent could have lived on that sum for a year.
By the time our daughter was ready to attend college in 1984, 26 years after I did, the sticker price at the same college had risen to about $18,000. Yet, at that time, if both parents were working, it was still feasible to send their offspring to college without financial aid. I spent eight months of my teacher’s salary for my daughter’s senior year.
Since the 80’s, however, things have changed. Tuition has bounded ahead of inflation—skyrocketing an average of 500 percent, according to Time—although salaries have not kept pace. The comprehensive fee at Smith College, for instance,...