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History of College Tuition: The Cost of College Tuition In the Late 1800s

Updated on January 31, 2015
The cost of college tuition in the late 19th century and their equivalent prices today.
The cost of college tuition in the late 19th century and their equivalent prices today.

Who paid for college tuition in the late 19th century?

The middle-class was booming and so were their numbers in colleges and universities. There was no government aid to speak of, so who paid for college in this time period?

  • Summer Jobs: Savings from work in resort town hotels or farms paid for classes during the academic year.
  • Day Work: Men worked in the day to pay for classes at night. Women did part-time domestic work.
  • Parents: Fathers ensured that their sons and sometimes daughters had their educations paid for.
  • Inheritances: Wills stipulated paid educations for grandchildren.
  • Employers: Business owners paid for schooling in exchange for contracted hires of students upon graduation.

Take a step back and look at the history of college tuition in America's past. This hub takes a look at the cost of college tuition in the late 1800s (1883 specifically) at four U.S. colleges, and provides the present-day inflation-adjusted cost, based on the tuition back then.

I wanted to make sure that the schools I reported on were still in existence, as many colleges I found in my research had closed in the 1890s or 1900s.

As an added bonus, to give a more in-depth glimpse of the time period, I sometimes found details about the colleges' campus offerings, town statistics, and some of the degrees conferred, which are also below.

You will notice that, the inflation-adjusted costs for what the education would be priced at today is extremely lower than what these institutions actually charge for tuition nowadays.

Vassar College

Female college students in the 1800s at Vassar. College tuition in the late 1800s.
Female college students in the 1800s at Vassar. College tuition in the late 1800s.

Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY:

  • Costs were $400 per year, which included tuition, board, furnished room, heat, light, service, and washing.
  • Adjusted for inflation, $400 in 1883 equals $9,235 in 2010.
  • The college at the time listed an astronomical observatory, chemical laboratory, museum of art, and a library with 15,000 volumes.
  • Vassar's campus was 210 acres, which included a lake.
  • The college was heated by steam, lit with gas, and had an elevator and telegraph.

Georgetown University

Georgetown College students in the late 1800s
Georgetown College students in the late 1800s

Georgetown University (then Georgetown College), District of Columbia

  • Costs were $300 per year for tuition, board, and lodging.
  • Adjusted for inflation, $300 in 1883 equals $6,926 in 2010.
  • Georgetown at the time also had a prepatory school on the grounds.
  • Seniors were able to attend lectures at the Smithsonian when accompanied by a professor.
  • On their days off students could attend debates in Congress or pleadings in the Supreme Court.
  • The school had required religious Catholic worship for students.
  • The tuition for medical school was $100 for the full series of lectures.
  • The college charged $150 for its two-year law school curriculum.

Chatham University

Students at Pennslvania Female College in the late 1880s, gathered for a Latin class photo
Students at Pennslvania Female College in the late 1880s, gathered for a Latin class photo

Chatham University (then Pennsylvania Female College), Pittsburgh, PA. Now co-ed.

  • Costs were $300 per year for board and tuition.
  • Adjusted for inflation, $300 in 1883 equals $6,926 in 2010.
  • The school advertised that it was "free from the smoke and dust of the city," regarding parts of Pittsburgh, which at the time suffered from industrial pollution.
  • Sixty apartments were on the grounds for students.
  • "In the matter of dress, good taste and propriety demand simplicity and no display of costly jewelry."
  • As this was a female college, the school awarded M.P degrees (Mistress of Philosophy) for English or Science. The A.B. degree was conferred for Classical Studies.
  • The college could be accessed on horse and steam cars from Pittsburgh or by the East Liberty stop on the Pennsylvania Central Railroad.

Wilson College

Wilson College Yearbook Photo, class of 1894
Wilson College Yearbook Photo, class of 1894

Wilson College, Chambersburg, PA. (then a female college, co-educational since 2013)

  • Costs were $250 per year for tuition, board, light, fuel, and furnished room.
  • Adjusted for inflation, $300 in 1883 equals $5,772 in 2010.
  • Parents were promised vigilant care for the intellectual, moral, and physical development of their daughters.
  • The campus was 18 acres and included a stream for boating.
  • The town of Chambersburg had been "rebuilt since the war," was a town of 7,000 people, and was known for its business progress and refinement of the community.


All college information is from Christie's School and College Guide 1883-1884 edition. James Christie, publisher.

Data on inflation adjustments is from, a website with a full inflation calculator.


Submit a Comment
  • bankscottage profile image

    Mark Shulkosky 

    8 years ago from Pennsylvania

    My oldest son went to CCAC and earned 2 associate degrees in drafting. He works for an engineering company and is using the GI bill to pay for an engineering degree. All I had to cover was the 60-70 community college credits at $95/credit hour. As a bonus, those CCAC credits are transferable almost anywhere. I am on the community college bandwagon.

  • Life and Luxury profile imageAUTHOR

    Life and Luxury 

    8 years ago from South Beach, FL


    Spot on. I was thinking as you, that most of the inflation-adjusted prices listed for these colleges reflect today's community college tuition rates without any room and board, of course.

    Student loan havoc on the consumer end and also accepting price increases of colleges however they come has just blown the cost of college out of proportion.

    Students in the 1800s all the way up to the 1980s were commonly paying for school tuition with summer jobs. Now, if you can do that, it is usually at a community college.

    I am very glad that community colleges came along in this country. It is probably the last bastion of affordable college for normal people.

  • bankscottage profile image

    Mark Shulkosky 

    8 years ago from Pennsylvania

    Thanks for the great Hub.

    The question now is, why did college tuition go up so much faster than inflation. Chatham, at the above total price, would be in line with the cost of the Community College of Allegheny.

    I believe the reason is the availability (almost unlimited availability) of student loans. When you don't have to pay for something now, you don't worry as much about the price. You'll pay the loans off in the future. Now, kids are stuck with tremendous student loan debt.

    We have not been good consumers of higher education. We have not expected (nor have we received) efforts by the schools to be fiscally responsible and keep tuition rate increases in check. We have not expected measurable results for our tuition dollars. Particularly in the past few years, how has all of the tuition money that has been spent improved the job prospects for all college graduates?

    I just recently asked a Hub question, 'What is the role of community colleges in higher education?' I think it should have a larger role working in partnership with industries and other employers to train students to meet the needs of their businesses. Train students to get the skills they need to get a job.


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