Jeff Jacoby
"If you want to go to college," my mother said, "you'll have to get a scholarship."

Luckily, I did. I was admitted to George Washington University, which generously awarded me a grant covering the full cost of my tuition. To the best of my recollection, that sum was $2,400 in 1975, the year I entered GW. To pay for my other expenses there were several forms of need-based financial aid, and I received what is now called a Pell Grant and a subsidized work/study job on campus.

Adjusted for inflation, the $2,400 GW charged for tuition when I was a freshman would equal $10,220 today. But for freshmen entering this year, tuition at GW is $45,780. In other words, four years of GW in the 1970s cost less (in 2012 dollars) than a single year there -- or at many other universities -- today.

GW is a private institution, but the price of a college education has been skyrocketing at public campuses too. All told, the average cost of an undergraduate education has more than doubled in real dollars since I entered college in the mid-1970s. Over the past 3½ decades, the consumer price index has climbed around 3.8 percent per year; over the same period, college tuition and fees have been soaring at an annual rate of 7.45 percent. But nothing soars forever.

College opened my mind to all kind of new ideas, many of which I can remember animatedly chewing over with fellow students. But one thing I know we never discussed was the prospect of graduating from college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt hanging over our heads. In the 1970s, that would have been unimaginable. Now it's anything but.

"At a protest last year at New York University," began a story in Sunday's New York Times, "students called attention to their mounting debt by wearing T-shirts with the amount they owed scribbled across the front -- $90,000, $75,000, $20,000." Outstanding student-loan debt in the United States now stands at more than $1 trillion, a number greater than the total credit-card debt Americans owe. Millions of borrowers are in default; many others face the prospect of spending most of their lives paying for their college education.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for