05/17/2012 01:09 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2012

Student and Parents' Increasing Indebtedness to Pay for College

I clutched my savings bankbook close to me as I walked with focus and determination to the bank. It was 1968 and I was walking to my savings bank to empty my bank account to pay for college. My passbook represented all the deposits I had made for the past 16 years.

As I glanced at the passbook it chronicled my life -- the $5 birthday gifts from grandparents, earnings from the years I spent as a young professional dancer, and my summer job earnings. I had earned $6.25 for each performance at City Center and Lincoln Center and that added up to something, but it wasn't going to be enough.

I had just been accepted to Bennington College, the nation's most expensive college and I was determined to attend. As a resident of New York, I could have gone to Queens College, part of the City University of New York, for $34 a semester, but I had always dreamed of going to Bennington where annual tuition/room and board was $3,850. There I could complement my interests in dance and academia and my acceptance was a dream comes true. Emptying my bank account was only the first step in achieving my dream -- it took a lot more.

It was a big leap financially for a middle-class girl from a public high school in Flushing, Queens. I had applied for financial aid from Bennington with my initial application. Those were the days before "need-blind admissions," and several weeks after receiving the acceptance letter I was notified by Bennington that they could not give me financial aid, and had given away my place. They never expected me to be able to raise the money needed to attend. I let them know I would do everything possible to earn the money and I was coming.

As I walked from my home to the Manufacturer's Hanover Bank almost a mile away I glanced across the street at the Flushing Public Library, a place where I had proudly signed my name to get a library card many years before. Who would ever predict that a signature on a card could broaden my horizons through books and magazines -- all for free!! I was now about to apply for and sign my name to another document, one that would obligate me to repay lots of money for years and years, but would allow me to pursue my dreams. I applied for and received the maximum loan for a freshman college student.

I repeated the trip to the bank many times during my college years as I reapplied for more student loans each succeeding year. Although I worked at jobs while at school, during the summers and during Bennington's Non-Resident work terms, the expenses were so vast that without student loans, I could never have made it.

I completed my undergraduate education and then went on to complete graduate degrees, returning to the bank for more loans each year. After graduating with my Ph.D. I repaid my loans over the allotted 10-year repayment period. It wasn't easy because earnings in the 70's were much less than that of today, but I did it.

Today parents and their children are still faced with the prospect of taking on large debt to help put their children through college. This L.A. Times and The New York Times each had front-page stories last weekend on the increasing amounts of debt parents and students are taking on to pay for college educations. Costs for higher education have risen dramatically, but it is still financially beneficial to have a college education. Studies cited by the L.A. Times indicate that lifetime earnings of college graduates average $650,000 more than that of their counterparts who completed only high school.

Many children still have dreams. One challenge is preparing them to be competitive enough to be accepted to their schools of choice. The other issue is paying for it. On June 16th our fourth son will be graduated from Northwestern University. For my family that means the end of tuition/room and board payments for four college educations.

It was a long road -- one that began with their pre-school educations, instilling them with values and providing opportunities. It meant ensuring that they received the preparation and education needed to be accepted to and have a choice of higher education institutions. We feel privileged that we were able to give our sons a choice of institutions, and each one chose a place where he felt he would flourish. Hopefully our sons will appreciate the value of the quality college educations they received. One thing of which we are certain; they will repay every penny we borrowed so they could have the experience.