Yes, summer job paid tuition back in '81, but then we got cheap

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People tell me you used to be able to work one job, the entire summer, and cover your entire education. I’m not sure how long ago that was — I have a hard time believing it. — Stephan Yhann, 21, current UW student

SEATTLE — Put down your smartphones, kids, and gather around Uncle Danny. I’m here to tell you a little something about these yarns from the days of yore, these tales so tall and preposterous.

What’s most amazing about them is: They’re true! You really could work a summer job and pay for your education.

I saw it myself. And I’m only 48 years old!

OK, I say “only,” as if 48 isn’t all that old. Which, let’s be blunt, it is. But it’s not like I’m reaching back to the 1930s here. Just the ’80s. Depressing, maybe, but hardly the Depression.

Yet in the early 1980s, when I was about to head off to college, I worked jobs at Kentucky Fried Chicken and later at a rubber-parts factory, where I got paid $3 and $6 an hour. With no skills whatever, I made $120 to $240 a week.

Sounds like beer money only. But here’s the part that will really freak out you kids today: a year of tuition and fees at the University of Washington in, say, 1981, was $687. It was similar for other public colleges around the nation.

That’s not a misprint. There’s no missing digit. Even a crappy job like slinging chicken at KFC could pay for that year’s UW tuition, and most of next year’s, too.

Today? At $10 an hour you’d have to work 1,250 hours to cover the UW’s $12,500 tuition (more, once you take out taxes). In a 12-week summer, that’s more than 100 hours a week.

What really made me feel ancient is that the 1981 UW student guide shows the Med school charged only $1,029 a year back then. Today: $28,040!

Now, I didn’t go to the UW. But I’m going down Husky memory lane because last week The Seattle Times printed a story about a crop of harried UW students looking rueful and broke. The story said skeptical state legislators often say how “they worked their way through college. And then they ask: Why don’t students do that today?”

Of all our delusions, we old farts cling to this bootstrap one the most. We worked our way up on sweat and chicken grease, we say. Can’t this generation? What’s wrong with them?

What’s wrong is that after we got ours, we cut it off for them.

The reason a summer at KFC could pay for a year of UW med school in 1981 isn’t that we were so hardworking and industrious. It’s that taxpayers back then picked up 90 percent of the tab. We weren’t Horatio Algers. We were socialists.

Today, the public picks up only 30 percent of UW tuition, and dropping.

How we milked the public university system in this state and then starved it will go down as the great badge of shame of my generation and the one before mine, the baby boomers.

Affordable college made us. Once made, we wouldn’t pay even a two-cent per can soda-pop tax to give that same gift to anybody else.

So, kids, the unbelievable tales of yore are true. Except the part about rugged individualism — that is baloney. Due to the allure of this myth, however, you’ll get no help from us. You’re on your own.

You can have a lecture on the virtues of hard work, though. No charge.

Danny Westneat can be reached at dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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