When the school opened in 1832, the trustees set the prices.
By 1839, costs had increased by one-third, to $161.00. Tuition was raised to $35.00 and board to $8.00 per month for 9 1/2 months. Wood was $5.00 a year and lights $6.00. Incidental expenses were reckoned at $15.00. Part of this was books, but also the students were expected to supply their own furniture (a practice that lasted for another century). During the 1840s and 1850s (until the curriculum change of 1859), tuition rose to $67.50 (including the damage deposit on the rooms) by 1848, but dropped to $50.00 by 1857. Board rose slowly; from $6.00 a month in 1834 to $8.00 in 1836, then to $12.00 in 1855, the first increase in nearly twenty years! Very likely the sharp increase in tuition in the 1840s came from the effort to maintain revenues in the face of falling enrollments, an effort that could have produced further drops. Probably with personal expenses and travel, it cost at least $200 a year for someone to attend Randolph-Macon. (This would not apply to students on scholarship.)
What did $200 represent? For the times, it was a large sum. A decent house could be built for fifteen hundred dollars, and four years of college equaled more than half that amount. As a very rough comparison, a similar house today in 1981 might have cost forty thousand dollars, and antebellum college expenses would run to something like five thousand of our dollars per year. The wholesale price of bacon in the late 1830s was ten to fifteen cents per pound, and that of clear lumber, $35 per thousand feet.
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