WELLS — When I started college as a freshman at the University of Nebraska back in 1963, one semester’s tuition was $165. Adjusted for inflation, that would be roughly $1,274.13 today. Back then the minimum wage was $1.25. You could work full time during the summer and earn enough to finance two semesters of college.

This would still be true if tuition and the minimum wage both had grown at the rate of inflation. By working full time for three months over the summer at a national minimum wage of $9.65 an hour, a student could earn around $3,937.20 after taxes. This would be more than enough to afford two semesters of school.

Instead, the annual in-state cost of tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities has skyrocketed to an average of $8,893. All the while, wages remain low and the cost of living continues to rise. As a result, students and their families have to resort to taking out larger and larger loans to finance an education.

Today, 40 million Americans are collectively strapped with a debt that has now reached a shocking $1.2 trillion. Have we found a new way to help Wall Street bankers get richer while families grow poorer?

I’m glad that U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wants to help students refinance their loans at lower interest rates, which should help. But what got us here in the first place? What happened?

University of Maine System Vice Chancellor and Treasurer Rebecca Wyke’s recent raise brought her salary to $205,000. But according to a recent nationwide report on professors’ salaries, an education professor in the university system earns only $34,000 a year, while an assistant math professor earns $48,000.

Top administrators’ salaries may be fueling higher tuition costs, but professors’ salaries are not.

I keep hearing that colleges are trying to make class sizes larger and are encouraging online courses. So it sounds like students are paying huge tuition fees for a lower-quality education.

Why was college so relatively cheap back in the 1960s? Many states, including Maine, are investing significantly less in higher education, claiming economic hardship. I would like to know where the money is going.

Is it because we are investing more in prisons? Is it because our country spends more on the military than all the other countries in the world combined? Is that why we just “can’t afford” to invest in higher education?

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education made a $41.3 billion profit on student loans. The agency seems to be doing pretty well – its profit was better in 2013 than ExxonMobil.

Back in Nebraska in the 1960s, farm kids went to college and became nurses, pharmacists, engineers, teachers, lawyers. We worked, saved money, went to college and found good jobs. Today, graduation is no guarantee of a job that will even allow today’s students to pay back their loans and afford rent. They have no chance of saving to buy a house.

My friend took out a loan to help cover her daughter’s college expenses. Her daughter graduated a few years ago. By the time they pay back the loan and the interest, it will be more than $100,000! My friend works long hours and every weekend just to help her daughter chip away at that loan. She’s in her late 50s and should be putting away money for her retirement.

My son’s fiancee is from Romania. She has a degree as a pharmacist as well as a fine arts degree. Her education was free. In Romania, if your grade point average is high enough, you pay no tuition. If your GPA is lower, you pay tuition, but it is still affordable.

How can a country like Romania afford to provide a high-quality college education for their young people for low or no tuition? My son’s fiancee is a pharmacist in Massachusetts. Her co-workers have told her that they paid six figures for an education that she got for free.

There doesn’t seem to be a rational reason for any of it. I think it’s time for state legislators and members of Congress to re-invest in higher education that helps students complete degrees and compete for jobs, not simply line the pockets of student loan companies.

Not too many years ago, Americans took pride in having a well-educated workforce and affordable tuition at state colleges and universities. Why did a public good turn into an opportunity for obscene exploitation of students and their families – to the tune of $1.2 trillion in student debt?

— Special to the Press Herald