Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth: Hector Steyn

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The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation has established the Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth, for writers aged 19 years and younger currently living or attending school in the state of Vermont.

The first-place prize of $1,500 and the runner-up prize of $500 are awarded for the article, essay or poem under 1,000 words that best answers the prompt of this year’s contest: “Is higher education worth the cost to you and your family?” In letters during his youth Calvin Coolidge wrote often seeking money from his father. In these letters many of Coolidge’s expenses are related to his schooling – first at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont and then at Amherst College in Massachusetts. In other letters, Coolidge and his father discussed the possibility of Calvin attending law school. Ultimately the family ended up deciding Calvin would “read the law” as a clerk in the office of Hammond & Field in Northampton, Massachusetts, thereby skipping the cost of law school. Students were asked to use the letters of the young Calvin Coolidge and other Coolidge-related sources to compare and contrast their situation today to that of Calvin Coolidge in his time.

The essays, which have appeared in The Reader in the last few weeks, were written by nine exceptional Vermont students who were selected as semi-finalists and finalists for the 2015 Calvin Prize. The Prize is sponsored by the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, and made possible by the generous support of National Life Group.

Submission by Hector Steyn Lyme NH (St. Johnsbury Student)

Nearly every day, we as students are lectured to about the necessity of a college education. It seems that without a proper, costly university experience, we would be unable to lead a fulfilling and successful life. Despite the years of one’s life it takes up and the financial toll of the tuition, we’re told that it’s worth every second and every penny. However, we also learn about those who have been confined by outstanding student loan debt and have had little to no success after graduation. We’ve been confounded for a long time with the same question: is college worth the cost? As a society, we are unable to unite upon a reasonable response to this question. So, should we answer it?

Calvin Coolidge experienced a similar, yet simultaneously different, experience. Coolidge was a man of little ambition early on in his life, his main goal being to follow in his father’s footsteps as a small-town shopkeeper. During his time at the elementary school of Plymouth, he was something of a mediocre student. Nonetheless, he eventually managed to gain entry to the prestigious Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he did reasonably well over his four years, graduating with honors in 1895 and earning good to exceptional grades. College also gave Coolidge an understanding of his own potential, as he quickly gained a reputation on campus for his public speaking skills and wit. He shared the junior prize for oratory and in his senior year his classmates elected him to deliver the Grove Oration, a droll speech about the senior class at graduation, as well as winning a national contest for his senior essay, “The Principles Fought for in the American Revolution.” Coolidge, himself, described his college experience as, “simply trying to get the most out of my opportunities whether I consider them as a chance to improve by hard study or to improve in some other lines by a judicious use of the money that my circumstances affords me.”

This was true. When he left Amherst, he did his best to avoid paying for what could have been an unnecessary education at law school, apprenticing with the law firm Hammond & Field instead and learning law through experience, rather than secondhand education. In 1897, he was admitted to the bar and swiftly became a lawyer. A year later, using his savings, he was able to open his own commercial law office in Northampton. However, during this time, he was met with some financial hardship. In a letter to his father, he writes, “It takes considerable capital to do what little business I take in. I may get in some money, I never can tell. I will write you again when I know what I must have.” Nonetheless, his success grew and he quickly gained a reputation as a thorough and industrious attorney, engendering a large demand for his services. After he garnered an impressive reputation, he entered the world of politics and rose to success.

The world Coolidge lived in has changed profoundly within the past century, however. Amherst College, Coolidge’s alma mater, now costs a good $64,000, eight times larger than the cost in 1891 of $8,000. With this, undergraduate students, on average, leave college with around $30,000 in student loan debt. According to Bloomberg, college tuition and fees have increased 1,120 percent since records began in 1978. Despite the high rate of change with regards to tuition, medical expenses have only risen 601 percent and the price of food has increased 244 percent. Along with the high financial toll of college, it seems as though many of those who attend college aren’t fully committed to it. 54% of all Americans who enroll into college eventually become dropouts and, according to Bloomberg, these dropouts make up a quarter of America’s richest people.

All of this information draws many people to the same conclusion: college is unnecessary. They assume that college is too expensive, or that it doesn’t adequately prepare people for the real world, or that the time spent in college can be used for significantly better things. This thought process is entirely fair. Ultimately, a college education isn’t necessarily for everyone, as the high number of dropouts indicates.

Yet many statistics also show the more advantageous side of college. People with a four

year college degree can make around $1,000,000 more than those with only a high school diploma in their lifetime. According to the Economic Policy Institute, as of 2015, the unemployment rate for high school graduates is 12.3 percent higher than the unemployment rate for college graduates. With both statistics complementing and weakening the case for college, I ask myself whether or not I should go?

Ultimately, much of my thought process about college is influenced by Coolidge’s own experiences. I have come to the part of my life wherein I have a myriad of decisions to make about my college education, well aware of the potential financial and personal strains that will be placed on me and my family. During this time, it will likely be most important for me to be methodical and frugal in determining my own educational experience. Coolidge didn’t instantly assume that the cost of law school was worth it, rather choosing direct experience. Coolidge’s economical nature helped him avoid throwing money away on things he didn’t feel as though he needed while also allowing him to recognize that some expenses cultivate more return. Ultimately, he chose his academic path for himself, doing his best to determine what career he believed to be right for himself. And that is likely one of the most important lessons to be gleaned from Coolidge’s interesting and accomplished life. College is neither completely useless nor completely required. It all depends on the individual and what they believe to be best for them. So, regardless of what the future holds for me, I will determine what path is best for me, regardless of what road society pressures to me follow.