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Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose *

by Jon K. Reynolds
Georgetown Magazine, November-December 1982

Last January, the Main Campus Finance Committee approved an 18 percent increase in the undergraduate tuition for 1982-83, bringing the estimated minimum cost of a year at Georgetown to a staggering $10,750. The figures reflect the fact that the cost of doing business for educational institutions has increased even faster than the consumer price index. Even so, it is sobering to realize that the cost of a Georgetown education is now beyond the means of most of the middle class.

The fact that applications have increased by 90 percent during the last decade, including a record 8,800 applicants for the class of 1986, suggests that we must be doing something right. On the other hand, the probability of a major cut in the federal government's contribution to student aid presents a serious hardship to many and threatens our efforts to recruit a truly representative student body. In such times, a history of Georgetown tuition might provide us with some distraction, if not outright consolation.

On November 21, 1791, the first student entered Georgetown College. He was William Gaston, the son of a widow from New Bern, North Carolina. Mrs. Gaston agreed to an annual tuition of six pounds ten shillings, payable in six-month installments, with room and board adding £ 27 10s. to the total bill. At the time, the exchange rate available in Georgetown was $2.67 to the pound, and thus the total charge for Gaston's first year at Georgetown was to be approximately $90; however, the first tuition increase occurred just six months later, when Mrs. Gaston's bill was increased by 15 percent. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Even this comparatively small sum was considered a temporary expedient, to be eliminated as soon as endowment funds would permit the school to dispense with all tuition fees. So much for fond hopes. It is interesting to note that early in the nineteenth century, the school added something like an energy surcharge, in this case for firewood, as a means of keeping the tuition figure as low as possible. At the same time, the administration told the Jesuit curia that Americans would never respect a school that did not charge a hefty tuition.

Just how cheap was Mrs. Gaston's bill? One must be careful when comparing prices, for the relationships between the costs of different items and incomes has changed drastically, and of course inflation must be taken into account. The expense of an education appears particularly cheap when compared to the cost of many goods. For example, Gaston bought eight sheets of letter paper on February 3, 1792, for one shilling; thus a year's tuition, room, and board equaled the cost of only 5,440 sheets of paper. Students now seem to consume that many Xerox copies in a year. Gaston's account shows that he spent a total of £ 4 4s. 9d. ($11.37) for books, and a visit to the physician cost £ 1 12s. 6d.

A different picture emerges if one looks at incomes. In John Carroll's plan for the college, he listed one hundred pounds as an appropriate salary for lay professors. He immediately thought better of this generosity, and lowered his suggestion to £ 80 per annum; as things worked out, the actual salary paid to most lay professors throughout the 1790s was £ 75 per year. Even then, some were more equal than others; a Mr. Wilson was hired to teach mathematics at a salary of £ 110 per year. The average faculty salary was thus about 2.2 times the cost of tuition, room, and board in the 1790s. Nailer Harbing, a workman at the college in 1792, was paid £ 55, or about 1.6 times Gaston's annual fee. Incidentally, Mrs. Gaston's total bill for William's year and a half at Georgetown was £ 102 8s. 4d., or about $273.

As the years went by, tuition and fees rose steadily, though consumer prices declined until the Civil War. By 1860, tuition had risen to $240 per year. In that year, Edward Douglas White, who would later serve as United States Chief Justice, paid a total of $441.73 for his schooling, including $25 for a violin, 12 cents for fishing tackle, $15.22 for class books, and $156.26 for clothing. Since this included no less than nine coats and six vests, we might infer that this was not exactly an austere budget, though a random sample of other accounts shows similar evidence of sartori6al extravagance. In the same year, the salary of the few laymen on the faculty had risen to $ 600 per year, or 2.5 times tuition and fees, and the college gardener received $240, precisely the cost of a year's schooling at Georgetown.

Between 1860 and 1900, tuition and fees rose much more steeply than prices generally, while salaries also rose. In 1880 faculty salaries were up to $ 800 per year, while tuition, room, and board rose to $430, the highest they would be until 1913. It is probable that this high figure was due to the costs associated with the construction of the Healy Building. By 1900 the college watchman was receiving $600 per year, 1.45 times the $412 it then cost to attend the school. Yet it is clear that the less affluent would require assistance if they were to send their sons to Georgetown.

In fact, financial aid was present in some form from the earliest days of the college, though it was administered on such an ad hoc basis that we know very little about it. A Mr. Eych of Philadelphia endowed a scholarship in 1798, but the accounting was so rudimentary that it is impossible to trace the disposition of the funds. It was traditional to admit at least a few deserving students without charge. In 1890, one of the few years for which we have reliable figures, 9 percent of the new students were admitted free, and an additional 7.9 percent were excused at least a portion of the fee. Even so, Georgetown never seems to have been in the position to provide an education for the first or second generation of immigrants.

The coming of the Depression did not halt or even slow the steady increases in educational costs that have marked the entire twentieth century. By 1930, when the better-paid faculty members received $3,000 annually, a year at Georgetown cost $975, up 33 percent over 1920. At this time, one could buy a complete lobster dinner near the campus for $1.50, and a new car could be had for less than $600. A survey published in 1936 showed that a typical Georgetown freshman spent a total of $1,200, of which tuition accounted for $400, the same as Harvard, and $50 less than Yale and Princeton. By 1940, when Pontiac advertised automobiles for $783, the cost of tuition, room, and board for a year on the Hilltop had risen to $1,100, excluding the transportation, books, and entertainment included in the 1936 survey. At that time, faculty salaries still ranged from $2,000 to $3,000 per year.

The modern era of higher education began after the Second World War, when the G.I. Bill and the ensuing flood of veterans began a series of changes that effectively removed college education from the list of easily dispensable luxuries. By 1960 the cost of a year at Georgetown had risen by 80 percent while the enrollment had increased to 6,065, a 230 percent increase over 1940. In this period, the consumer price index doubled and a 1960 Pontiac cost considerably more than a year at school. Considering the amount of construction that has been necessary to meet even minimum requirements, a case might be made that tuition increases have been unusually restrained. In 1960, a typical associate professor received $ 6,500, or 2.4 times tuition, room, and board - the same ratio as in 1860. At this time, the legal minimum wage was about $2,000, again roughly the same relation to tuition that had existed in 1860.

In the two decades since 1960, American colleges have led a somewhat breathless existence, and yet Georgetown has emerged in generally excellent condition. The tuition increases have been painful, yet faculty salaries still stand at about 2.5 times tuition, room, and board, and a gardener's salary remains about the same as the cost of a year at Georgetown, or slightly less than the cost of a Pontiac sedan. However, since 1978 Georgetown has been able to meet the demonstrated financial need of every student it has accepted; thus for the first time, the talented child of a workingman has a good chance of attending Georgetown. Unfortunately, this depends too heavily on the largess of the federal government, and thus we face an urgent need for an independent source of financial aid.

This essay did not set out to draw conclusions, but several are self-evident: Pontiac sedans clearly cost too much, and a Georgetown education is terribly expensive. Yet the latter remains much in demand, while Pontiacs remain unsold. It seems clear that Georgetown provides a first-class education, but it rests on at best a third--class endowment. Few institutions do as much with as little money, and thus the stage is set for the current capital campaign. While planning the college John Carroll remarked, "the difficulties perplex, but do not dishearten." This spirit has brought us through two hundred years successfully, and will serve us well into the next century.

*the more things change, the more they stay the same

Jon Reynolds (C'65) is the Georgetown University archivist.