When my father died, I was eight years old, the third of four children.  Mother repeatedly made it clear that if we wanted to go to college like our parents—and we must—we would have to study hard to obtain scholarships.  The notion became so ingrained that I grew up presuming excellent grades and college were the ultimate goals in life.  Mother’s admonishments worked: All four of us attended Ivy League or Seven Sisters schools.

That was in the middle of the 20th century.  Though college was considered very expensive, it was still within the reach of middle-class families.  In the late 50’s my annual comprehensive fee was around $5,000.  A couple who didn’t need to pay rent could have lived on that sum for a year.

By the time our daughter was ready to attend college in 1984, 26 years after I did, the sticker price at the same college had risen to about $18,000.  Yet, at that time, if both parents were working, it was still feasible to send their offspring to college without financial aid.  I spent eight months of my teacher’s salary for my daughter’s senior year.

Since the 80’s, however, things have changed.  Tuition has bounded ahead of inflation—skyrocketing an average of 500 percent, according to Time—although salaries have not kept pace.  The comprehensive fee at Smith College, for instance, continues to rise annually: $61,806 for 2014-15, an increase of $2,250 over the preceding school year.  Yet Smith estimates only five percent of American families can afford these fees.  As a result, today 65 percent of Smith’s students receive financial aid.  Other private residential institutions charge similar fees and thus feel obligated to offer similar amounts of aid.  An unintentional result of these rising costs that I have observed at Smith College is a polarization of the student body: the haves on one side, the have-nots on the other, with very little middle class in the center.  And among private colleges, Smith is no exception.

Assuming there remain in such colleges a few middle- and upper-middle-class students who still pay the full amount, how do they manage?  With great difficulty.  A single mother will even go so far as to mortgage her home, her only possession.  Often parents need the aid, but refrain from requesting it in order to better the chances of their son or daughter being admitted.  And often only one of the siblings can be offered such a luxurious education.  The others have to attend community colleges or their state university.  Nowadays, they are even starting to seek courses online.  Many students, as today’s media remind us, take out loans that take years to pay back, thus postponing marriage indefinitely, particularly when they must borrow for graduate school as well.

But the tuition portion (about $45,000) of the fees needn’t be so high.  What most parents don’t realize when they pay full tuition is that they are also contributing to financial aid.  In February 2014 Duke University admitted on National Public Radio that $20,000—out of that year’s estimated $60,000 total cost—was allocated to aid.  But most institutions are reluctant to reveal such figures and even go so far as to deny the persistent rumors that tuition is contributing to financial aid.  On the other hand, they don’t deny that the paying students allow the college to admit a greater proportion of needy ones.

Is this fair to those families who are struggling to pay full fare and are not allowed even to take a tax deduction for their unwitting contribution?

In my day, college was still affordable for the middle class; scholarship students were the exception.  Today, however, the middle class is being squeezed out of the student body in favor of “economic diversity”—i.e., scholarship beneficiaries, who are so frequently the norm that those not receiving aid are embarrassed to admit so.

But then parents are reprimanded for complaining: The fees are still a bargain, say the colleges, because the institution’s endowment covers a good portion of each student’s education.  Thus, the colleges give with one hand while taking away with the other.

Colleges claim inflation is to blame for escalating prices; but rising tuition is much of their own doing.  First of all, salaries (with alluring pension plans) have risen dramatically in recent years, because colleges compete more and more for star teachers.  And even if colleges feel they cannot reduce salaries, they could reduce tuition by cutting back on financial aid and unnecessarily luxurious construction.  They ignore the fact that every time tuition increases, requests for aid increase.  Then to finance aid, colleges raise tuition once again, so that a vicious circle is perpetuated.

One administrator explained to me that colleges offer generous aid packages because “diversity makes the institution stronger.”  Really?  I have my doubts about the benefits of diversity, as it is practiced today.

Since atypical students—foreigners and minorities, especially—are believed to enrich everyone’s educational experience, their proportions have increased dramatically, and colleges compete with one another to admit more minorities every year.  These students have now become so numerous that they form their own mutually exclusive associations and alliances on campus, the Chinese nationals sticking to themselves, the African-Americans to themselves, etc.  Then the LGBTs band together and, particularly in women’s colleges, blow their own horns loudly enough to upset their normally tolerant classmates.  As for those international students whose countries are poorly represented, they frequently suffer from culture shock, aggravated by the fact that immature American students tend to shun anyone who does not fit in; the foreigners then withdraw into their own international students’ organization.

Of course, the average American students sometimes make friends with their “diverse” classmates, but not nearly so much as the idealistic college administration imagines.  On the contrary, the sheer numbers of such students on campus (at Smith College 30 percent are “students of color”) sometimes cause resentment, even occasional backlash incidents, subsequently covered up by the administration—just as excessive immigration is beginning to provoke similar reactions in Western Europe today.

Diversity is supposed to produce the opposite result: By bringing different viewpoints to the campus, diversity is expected to broaden the mind and encourage tolerance among young people.  However, this ideal can result in a chorus of discordant voices oblivious to one another.  The more diverse the campus, the more quarrelsome it becomes.  And the eager promotion of diversity—and differences of opinion—emboldens activists to speak out.

Colleges argue that educating foreigners (12 percent at Smith) is an investment in a better world, because, thanks to American largesse, these students will return home as effective leaders to promote their own countries’ development.  But too many of these students, lured by the land of opportunity, remain here, where there is much less need for them.

Considering the drawbacks, one may legitimately ask whether increasing diversity is worth the additional cost.

One may also wonder whether it is necessary to attend an expensive college to get a good education.  How many students actually take advantage of those prestigious facilities colleges feel obligated to build and maintain in order to improve their ranking and attract an increasingly diverse student body?  How many serious students find the time to use the indoor track and tennis courts, the climbing wall, the Olympic-sized swimming pool, the state-of-the-art theater?

Students who want to further their education feel the need to attend reputable institutions, those whose names they will feel proud to display on their résumés and curricula vitae.  Hence the popularity of the Ivy League and their peer institutions, such as the Seven Sisters, which have the additional advantage of transforming shy little girls into self-confident adults (provided they can put up with the pressure to embrace, if not promote, gender theory).  If a girl is interested in science, she should consider a women’s college, where she will benefit from exclusive attention and plenty of hands-on experience in superbly equipped labs.  Afterward, she should have no trouble competing in the workplace.  A fancy college in this case might be worth the price tag.

When my siblings and I attended those colleges in the 50’s and early 60’s there was a core curriculum.  In the liberal arts, students were required to spend the first two years taking a broad sampling of courses in the various departments before choosing a major.  The intent was to provide them with a well-rounded education.  No one doubted the validity of the subject matter.  Job hunters easily found positions upon graduation.  Today, however, even the most reputable schools offer an “open curriculum,” which means there are few or no requisites and an array of trendy temptations—Buddhist Studies or Queer and Sexuality Studies, for example.  Fashionable majors include the politically correct “Afro-American Studies” or “Study of Women and Gender.”

Yet, provided students choose their courses astutely, avoiding the foolish, fashionable ones, it is still possible to obtain an excellent education in these top residential colleges, where young minds are stimulated by constant interaction, in and out of the classroom, with other intelligent, motivated students and professors.  In addition to the rigorous coursework and the reputation associated with the degree, graduates of these schools can take advantage of an influential alumni/alumnae network, which provides a lifelong helpline.

There are other ways to obtain worthy diplomas, and for far less than $60,000 per year.  How about a state university?  UMass (which offers an excellent honors program) charges less than $6,000, exclusive of room and board, to state residents who perform well on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam.  (Compare that with an average Ivy League annual tuition rate of $45,000.)  Students may also save a great deal of money by living at home and attending a community college for two years before transferring to a pricier, higher-ranking school.

Or why not go abroad?  Canadian and British schools are much cheaper, as are American-style, English-speaking colleges in the Netherlands.  Better still, in Western Europe most higher education is free, but you have to speak the language.  Barcelona is the Mecca for Spanish-speaking students.  For a French speaker, Paris is a magnet, though lodging is expensive.

But the choice is difficult, notably because it requires true motivation to become an anonymous student in a big university, particularly a foreign one, where students are presumed to be mature enough to fend for themselves.

After studying for two-and-a-half years at Smith College, I transferred to the Sorbonne in Paris, where I spent over six years, terminating with a grueling competitive exam.  The quality of lectures at the Sorbonne ranged from dismaying to dazzling.  I also discovered the French excelled in numerous academic domains, such as expository writing and textual analysis.  But, students be warned: You won’t be pampered.  The typical French professor won’t learn your name until you sign up to write a master’s thesis with him, and then you probably won’t receive any further advice until you are about to defend it.  Other common student frustrations include queuing for hours to settle administrative difficulties, only to be reprimanded for being in the wrong line, in the wrong office, even in the wrong building, or standing in line at the university library to borrow a book, only to be told it is “unavailable” indefinitely.

Some years later my French husband and I sent our younger daughter to Smith to explore various fields before choosing a career, while her sister remained at home at the Sorbonne.  And now our daughter’s daughter is attending Smith, the fifth generation to do so.  So I am in a position to judge the two types of higher education in prestigious schools: a select private residential college on a garden campus in the states, versus a huge free public university in the midst of the capital city of France.  I had two unforgettable professors at the Sorbonne, and, paradoxically, I learned more about English literature there than I would have learned anywhere in the states.  On the other hand, the cozy atmosphere was far more conducive to learning at Smith, where I also had one fascinating art history professor whose classroom was packed to the icy windowpanes with eager auditors.  At small, private colleges, professors not only know their students, but advise and encourage them individually.

There are good teachers and poor ones at nearly every college, so the choice is not so much between a good school and a bad one as between a cozy, expensive education in a small, private college and an inexpensive education in a large university where students must be entirely self-reliant and the environment is harsher.  While struggling to complete my studies at the Sorbonne, I missed the comfort of Smith’s spoon-fed education every day.  I also learned the truth of the old saw, you get what you pay for.

I used to be a staunch supporter of residential liberal-arts colleges, but now I am beginning to think their diplomas are not worth the outlandish price tag, which amounts to the cost of a house.  The middle class cannot afford such luxury.  As one student at Smith put it, “My parents are too rich to request financial aid, but too poor to pay for my studies.”  And what will have been achieved when the middle class is entirely excluded from such colleges in the name of diversity?