When we were at Harvard and Yale, 30 to 40 years ago, lofty ideals were affordable.

Back in the late ’60s and ’70s, the average annual tuition and fees for a private college was around $7,000, inflation-adjusted to today’s dollars. Four-fifths of U.S. households had annual incomes in excess of that. Beyond help with the direct cost of college, very few students counted on parents for help with housing or income. Student loans were small, seldom more $2,000 total, and most of those who took them paid them off quickly.

The result? We Boomers — regardless of family circumstances — could follow the calling of our choice or the vocation of our conscience. We were free to buy into the Beatles’ credo, “I don’t care so much for money. Money can’t buy me love.” If we wanted to go into teaching, public service or the arts, we did.

How unlike now, when so many young people — especially those whose families are not affluent — have no choice but to rivet their ambitions, their careers and their very lives to the pursuit of the highest money return.

In 2006, the average annual tuition and fees for a private college exceeded $22,000 — a 200 percent rise over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, the real income of the median U.S. household has only risen 30 percent, and today only half of all households have incomes that exceed the average private tuition. That’s not all. Entry-level pay in many fields (especially in public service) has actually declined since the early 1970s, while housing costs (especially in major cities, where many of the public service jobs are located) have skyrocketed.

In March, Yale will announce its tuition and fee increases for the 2007-’08 academic year. If past practice holds, these hikes will be well above inflation. There will be an official explanation pointing to rising costs, the improved quality of education and increases in financial aid — after which there will be little controversy, since students and their families figure that, in the long-run, the price of a Yale education will more than pay for itself.

For most of you, the price of Yale will indeed pay for itself. You’ll get good jobs, pay off those loans, buy houses (in most places, anyway) and start families. But for some of you, those who want to pursue an unconventional or public-service career, the price might not. And what should concern you even more are your peers who go to non-Ivy colleges, many of whom will be saddled with at least as much debt and with a far dimmer prospect of ever matching your earning power. For many of them, the price of their higher education will be a lifelong burden.

What concerns us is that not enough of you, at Yale and elsewhere, will spend your 20s and 30s doing the vibrant and vital work required of every rising generation to advance civilization just because this “job” don’t pay enough — teaching, writing books, fashioning great works of art, challenging injustice, fighting crime, safeguarding the environment, defending our nation, or alleviating want and disease around the planet.

Many of you won’t do those things simply because you’ll be too focused on justifying the cost of college to your families and on paying off your own debts.

Across America, it’s common for college graduates to leave school with $20,000 to $50,000 in debt — and for dropouts to leave with $10,000 in debt and nothing to show for it. For graduates of business and public policy schools, add another $75,000 to $100,000. For law or medical school, make that $125,000 to $150,000. Compare that to the experience of people today in their late 60s on up (including many of the trustees and overseers of institutions like Yale). The great majority of them had no debt at all when they graduated from college.

If an older person should ask you why it is that your generation, coming of age in an America that is so much more affluent than it was 30 years ago, is so much more focused on money, your answer ought to be simple: college payback. Unless you’re rich or near-rich, paying for college is a significantly heavier burden than it used to be. It is a burden that is steering many of you away from your ideals and is driving a wedge between students who have cash pouring in from their families and others who don’t.

Some say that higher tuitions are needed to cover the cost of quality teaching. Yes, but has teaching improved that much? Clearly only a small fraction of our universities’ total outlays is directly related to undergraduate education. Others remind us that more money is needed to sustain American universities’ world-class leadership in research, technology, scholarship and invention. Fine, but should America’s young people — and middle-class families — be made to bear such a large share of this burden?

There are to be sure a few colleges with no assets and tight budgets that have no other choice but to raise tuitions. But what can be the excuse of the Ivies, most of which have vast endowments? The Yale endowment, most recently measured at $18 billion, has shown outstanding growth over the past 20 years, the same 20 years Yale has been jacking up tuitions above the rate of inflation. Consider: Just the annual earnings on this endowment (assuming a super-prudent return of 6 percent) amounts to well over $200,000 for every undergrad.

One might think that, as the University becomes vastly more wealthy, it would share some of that growth with students — beyond announcements of increases in financial aid, which often means loans. And even disregarding the impact of tuitions and debt on Yale’s own future alumni, one might also think that the University would consider its role an a price leader — if not its role as a moral exemplar — in influencing how tuitions are set at other universities.

Controlling the cost of higher education, and of student debt, has become a generational imperative. We have a few suggestions.

First: For the next academic year, Yale can put an end to the 25-year-long above-inflation run-up in tuition. Yale’s college tuition is now $33,030, with total charges of $43,050. In the coming year, the University should freeze its tuition and fees at 2006 levels — at all its schools. The current annual rate of inflation, according to the most recent CPI, is 3.17 percent. A Universitywide freeze on tuition and fees would cost (at most) about $13 million, which translates into less than half of 1 percent of last year’s $3 billion growth in the endowment.

Second: Yale can stop treating undergraduate loans as “financial aid.” If a college student and his family cannot afford tuition, then the difference should be covered by a reduction in tuition and fees. Funding this would be pocket change for the University.

Third: The University can re-target alumni gifts toward debt forgiveness for recent graduates who are currently in modestly compensated employment.

We encourage Yale undergraduates to take an active role in the tuition discussion now, before next year’s fees are announced. In doing so, you would be doing a major service for millions of others in your Millennial Generation — some now in college, more in middle or high school on the path to college.

Like nearly every large university, Yale receives enormous tax, spending and subsidy favors from every level of our national community — federal, state and local. It must begin to consider what it owes the community in return.

Yale has an opportunity to set an example for hundreds of other colleges and universities across America. Make no mistake: Yale and a handful of other schools set the standard for the cost of higher education. Were Yale to freeze tuition and take the other actions we suggest, the consequences could be far-reaching. It would then not be so easy for other colleges to keep pushing up tuition and fees — and student debt. This would be of considerable benefit to an entire generation of students who are now, or who soon will be, of college age.

Were Yale to take these steps, it would be using its great wealth to serve not only your generation, but also the highest ideals of our society, culture and nation.

Neil Howe (M.Phil. ’80, M.A. ’84) and William Strauss are co-authors of six books about American generations, including “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”