The $60,000 baseball cap

When I was 17, I was very fortunate to be accepted into Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a school of science and engineering, one of the best in the nation. It was also one of the two most expensive schools in Indiana, competing each year for that title with the University of Notre Dame.

John Becker photo

Upon graduation, each man in my class was issued a baseball cap just like the one pictured here, as a gift. We all joked that it was our “$60,000 baseball cap,” for that was about the total cost of a Rose-Hulman education in the mid-to-late 1980s.

I’m sure that my dad swallowed very hard when I told him that I wanted to go to Rose. We were a working-class family. But the financial-aid office told us not to worry, that they would find us a way. And they did. I got a Pell grant from the government, and the Lilly Endowment gave me a healthy scholarship. I borrowed $12,000. My parents scraped together the rest, which was on the order of $20,000. I’ll never know how they managed it, especially starting my sophomore year when my younger brother entered Notre Dame.

Last October I was on campus recruiting soon-to-be graduates to write code for the software company where I work. One of my former professors stopped by our booth to say hello. He’s nearing the end of his career, and he reflected on how much things had changed in his 30-plus years on campus. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to go here now?” he asked. Of course I didn’t. He quoted me a number well north of a quarter million dollars. “That’s for the whole four years, tuition, room, board, everything,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know how any of these kids can afford to be here.”

That really hit home because I now have a 17-year-old son thinking about college. Thank heavens he doesn’t want to be a scientist or engineer. Thanks to my parents’ sacrifice, I make way more than a working-class wage. That means my son won’t qualify for the same level of aid I got. And while I do all right, I don’t do so well that I can scrape together the kind of money it would take to send my son to a school as expensive as Rose.

I guess I should be glad he’s not interested in science or engineering. Maybe he’ll want to go to a state school. I might be able to afford that.


15 responses to “The $60,000 baseball cap”

  1. pesoto74 Avatar

    I think that one of the good things about the Cold War was that people realized that to compete with the USSR we had to be serious about education At least in the 60’s and 70’s a lot of money went into education. When I was in college I never spent more than $1700 in a year. And that includes housing. I remember that most of the colleges in CA were free back then. Pretty much anyone that wanted a college education could afford it back then. I don’t know how these kids today do it. I have known many who leave school with a huge debt.

    To me it is funny how some people talk about how advanced we are now. I guess they don’t remember times when most people were able to support a family on one income and just about anyone could get a good education.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, my sense as well is that we have slipped backwards in actual standard of living because it generally takes two incomes now to live as well as we did on one 40 years ago.

      When I went to Rose, IU was enormously less expensive, to the point where I might not have incurred any debt. But Rose was such a good experience for me that I have no regrets.

  2. bwc1976 Avatar

    Don’t know about Indiana specifically, but I know the state I grew up in (Texas) had at least 2 or 3, maybe 4 state schools with good engineering programs. Although I’m sure they’re not as cheap as they used to be either!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Purdue is the state school here with the well-known engineering program! Plenty of good engineers come from there.

  3. Richard Scholl Avatar
    Richard Scholl

    Your comment about Purdue is right on. Purdue is considered one of the top engineering schools in the country. Purdue graduates are regularly recruited by firms here in Silicon Valley.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Given that I went to Rose it pains me to admit it, but yes, Purdue generates fine engineers.

  4. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Jim…Nice to see the blog in the new format. :-)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks John – WordPress found the root cause of the problem. I made a temporary adjustment on my end to work around the problem, and I hope that pretty quickly they fix the bug and I can undo my adjustment. Right now the fonts you’re seeing are not the ones I want to use. But the custom fonts upgrade is what broke the blog for you.

      1. bodegabayf2 Avatar

        Well, it’s nice. It’s clean. I like that. I am a minimalist.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Thanks. A more minimal look is what I was going for. I wanted to bring my words and my photos more front and center and not have them cluttered by other page elements.

          1. bodegabayf2 Avatar


  5. hmunro Avatar

    How lucky you (and I!) were to have parents who made sacrifices to provide a good education. But it’s sad that university costs have risen so much that many promising students can no longer afford to attend the best schools, no matter how much they and their parents sacrifice. I worry that we’re short-changing our kids’ and our nation’s future by basically pricing almost everyone out of the top-notch schools. *Sigh,*

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I am flying blind here – I have no idea what kinds of grants and aid are available today. But just looking at my income vs. what my dad made, even adjusted for inflation, I don’t see how I could ever afford to send my sons to Rose.

      But I think we’re on the edge of an era where, except for hard disciplines like engineering and medicine, college is becoming less important.

  6. Melissa Waggoner Dieckmann Avatar

    One of the most important decisions that we made when my daughter was born was to start a College Fund in addition to a regular savings account for her. We regularly put money into both, including gift money that she receives and increments from our own income. Our goal is to have saved/earned via investment enough money that she does not have to limit her college decision because of our financial resources. It can be a big sacrifice at times, but one that we feel is definitely worth making.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I married somebody who at the time didn’t really value a college education, and so we couldn’t agree on starting college funds for our children. When we divorced, it was a financial setback for me. So now here I am, finally financially stable again, but in a place where my older son is ready to go to school – and I have nothing saved. It’s a shame that it turned out this way, but it is what it is.

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