Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

July 16, 2013

John Cannon: When college was affordable: 7/17/13

John Cannon
The Independent

ASHLAND — When my wife and I were married in 1976, I accepted responsibility for the payments on the loan she had taken out to pay for her undergraduate classes at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville.

Not long after we were wed, we came into an unexpected source of money that made it possible for my wife to pay off that loan several years early.

At first paying off the student loan early seemed like a great idea, but the more I looked at the numbers, the less appealing the idea became.

Here’s why: The interest on the government-backed loan was so ridiculously low it make sense to keep making monthly payments on the loan and putting the money we would have used to pay off the loan into a savings account where it could draw more interest than the cost of the interest on the loan. That’s what we did and I have never regretted that decision. It was the right one at that time.

But that was then and this is now. Times have changed, and what it was possible for a couple of newlyweds with modest incomes to do in 1976 would be impossible today.

Peabody now is a part of Vanderbilt University, making my wife a Vandy grad as the school regularly reminds her when asking for donations. It cost a whole lot more for my wife to attend Peabody College than it cost me to attend Morehead State University, which helps explain why I was able to graduate from Morehead in 1970 without being a penny in debt. For that, I thank my frugal parents, and a long line of market pigs and steers who gave their lives so my sisters and I could go to college.

Mom and Dad were smart. They planned ahead for college. They had to. There are just under five years separating my oldest sister and yours truly, the “baby” of the family. Mom, the first member of her family to attend college, not only expected all four of her children to attend college, she demanded it. The idea of not going to college was never discussed in the family, although Dad never went to college.

Mom and Dad realized from the time my sisters and I started school there would come a time when they would have three or four children in college at the same time, and they knew that would be expensive.

My sisters and I were all active in 4-H and showed animals at the Fayette County Fair each summer. Those animals were all sold at auction at the fair, and all the income from those sales went into a college savings account for us. Kids always get good prices for their livestock at the fair, but one year one of my sisters had the grand-champion market hog, and in a county that at the time led the nation in hog production, being the top pig at the county fair was a big deal. My sister’s champion hog brought a lot of money. And that money went into the college fund.

Money from livestock sales helped pay for the college educations of my sisters and me. I also was a work-study student during my four years at MSU, and during the year I was editor of the Trail Blazer, I earned a whopping $25 week. That money provided my living expenses at MSU, including money for dates, etc.

Two of my three children now have college degrees, and my youngest son is attending MSU. However, unlike me, they have all had to borrow money to go to college and they will be paying off their loans for years to come. They all borrowed far more money to attend state colleges than my wife borrowed to attend Peabody. In fact, the cost of a college education at Morehead today is about what my wife paid to attend Peabody almost 40 years ago.

I am constantly stunned by how much it costs to go to college today. I learned this lesson the hard way when my daughter asked me if I would pay for the textbook for a class she was taking.

“Sure,” I said, thinking that would be $30 or so. Instead, the book cost $117! I learned it is not unusual for books to cost students between $500 and $1,500 each semester! And to think I once complained because one of my textbooks at Morehead had cost $17.

College is worth the investment. While there were a number of classes I took at Morehead that were of little value as far as my job is concerned, they all helped make me what I am today. After Morehead, I went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio University. Fortunately, because of a combination of scholarships and assistantships, my master’s program cost me nothing. Getting good grades in undergraduate school does have its benefits.

College did not make me rich, but it enriched me. I just wish today’s students did not have to pay so much to be enriched.

After all, most kids today can’t pay for their education by selling hogs and steers.

JOHN CANNON can be reached at jcannon@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2649.