When I pay our son’s college tuition I am given a variety of options, from full payment up-front to installment plans, but no matter how I pay I must use U.S. currency.  Which raises the question, before there was a standard U.S. currency, how did students pay their college tuition?

I have been reviewing the early laws and records of Rhode Island College (Brown University’s predecessor) and have found a number of unanticipated tidbits unrelated to the questions that I am researching.  One such tidbit concerns this issue of currency.  In the laws of 1793, most fees are payable in schillings and pence.  In the laws of 1835, standard U.S. currency is specified.  While the laws of 1803 though, mostly uses dollars and cents, it requires the payment of the tuition in advance of “one hundred ounces of silver.”

This raises two questions for me: (1) what was the status of U.S. currency in 1803, and (2) how much would this have translated into, in our terms?  As far as I can tell from the Wikipedia page, the Coinage Act, which established the U.S. dollar as our national currency, was passed in 1792.  It appears, though, that there was some suspicion about using the minted silver dollars for fear that they contained less silver than they should have.  It apparently took more than a decade to establish faith in the new currency, although a great deflation in 1802 certainly did not help build confidence.  According to the conversion chart also there, 100 ounces of pure silver would be worth approximately $118 at that time.  Using the formula found here, that equates into $1887 in today’s dollars (which is, curiously, very close to the spot price of 100 oz of silver today).  If this is right (could this really be right?) Brown would have been quite affordable to the middle class.  Of course, the gym was not as nice then.