Let's Reminisce: Going to college in the '60s
By Jerry Lincecum
Mar 27, 2019
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The breaking news about the recent arrests of dozens of rich parents for paying bribes and engaging in fraud to get their spoiled progeny admitted to elite schools like Yale, Georgetown, and U.S.C. made me think about the very different experiences I had while going through college and graduate school in the 1960s.  Perhaps my reminiscences will prompt older readers of this column to recall just how differently higher education operated 50 or 60 years ago.


Upon finishing high school in 1960, I thought engineering was the ideal vocation for me, so Texas A&M was the place to go.  I even struggled through a trigonometry course by correspondence since it was required and my high school didn’t offer it.  With no prospect of a summer job, I went directly into summer school and that turned out to be a good decision.


With a valedictory scholarship, I was guaranteed admission and didn’t have to pay tuition, and the room and board costs were very modest.  The two courses I took in English that summer fired up my enthusiasm for literary study and convinced me to become an English major.  I got married that fall and my wife and I moved into the College View apartments at A&M, where a two-bedroom flat (converted from army barracks) rented for $38 a month with all bills paid.  With the work-study job I had already found plus my wife’s earnings we paid our own way through college.


I managed to complete my B.A. degree at Aggieland in three years, graduating with honors and no debt.  I was also awarded a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship for graduate study in English at Duke University, and once again our living expenses were modest enough to require no student loans.  It was only toward the end of my dissertation research that I decided to take out a National Defense Education Act loan for $5,000 so I could devote full time to finishing my degree.


That meant I began my teaching career at Austin College in 1967 with the Ph.D. in hand, and one of the benefits of NDEA loans was that up to 50% would be forgiven (at the rate of 10% a year) for going into teaching.  Thus the total amount of college loans that I had to repay for seven years of college and grad school was $2,500.  I have a colleague who completed eight years of college and graduate school with no debt at all.


The assumption behind resorting to bribery and fraud to get your child into an elite school seems to be that a person’s success in life (or at least her income level) will be much greater if she goes to the highly selective college.  But what about the “winners” who boasted about cheating to get in and the “losers” who were excluded despite having worked harder?  What kind of signal does this send to our youth?


In the 1960s the assumption was that college should be affordable because enabling people to become better educated and discover where their talents lay advanced our society.  None of the people I was in school with expected their parents to cover all the cost of their college education.  The idea of cheating on entrance exams or bribing someone to get into college wasn’t even conceivable to me.


Since I have three grandchildren who are either in college or about to enter, this issue is a perfect example of something I often say to elderwriters: "The world has changed so much in our lifetime that our grandchildren won’t believe what we experienced unless we write our life stories." 


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: