Do you remember the amount of your first tuition bill? If so, there is an easy way to use your own experience to make a comparison to today’s costs to students or parents. Just go to this link, plug in what you paid to the best of your recollection and calculate automatically what it would amount to in today’s dollars.

The link is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (If you went to SMU, Baylor, TCU or another private school, go ahead and play the game, but the result will not be applicable to the discussion below of state participation.)

You can of course view a chart from various agencies and organizations, such as here from the College Board, where you will see that aggregate student costs go up when state support goes down. But you can also find critics of such data, who point out that we should factor in financial aid programs and such. It gets complicated quickly.

If you are old enough (cough!), you will discover that tuition when you first went to college was really, really cheap, even when the effects of inflation are taken into account. Just type in, say, 1968, when a freshman Baby Boomer could enroll at a regional state university for around $100, and considerably less at a community college. That’s right. (Boomers to Millennials: “But we didn’t have shoes! Shoes!”) Textbooks and room and board were also amazing bargains. Now compare those numbers to what students pay today, at the institution of your choice. and you will discover that there is no way to explain what’s happened during the last several decades with inflation alone.

With today’s emphasis on free tuition at local and state institutions, it’s worth pointing out that many times it’s not as wonderful as it seems. Students must often exhaust all financial aid before taking part, and many programs require full-time enrollment—a deal breaker for many of our students.

As we all know, community college tuition is a much better bargain for students than what they can find at a university. But this differential is getting harder to maintain as local taxpayers revolt against rising real estate assessments.

Perhaps, instead of free tuition programs that may or may not do much good, a better approach is to MAKE COLLEGE CHEAP AGAIN. We could put the slogan on a red cap.