Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth: Jaime DeKett

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 will appear in The Reader in the coming 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 Jaime DeKett
Lyndonville, VT

College. That single word is enough to strike fear into the hearts of your average high school student. Being a junior, I am painfully familiar with the questions, “Where are you planning to go for college?” alongside, “What are you going to major in?” Asked by friends, family, teachers, and anyone who has discovered I’m old enough to begin college planning. I’ve always found it interesting that these questions never take into consideration the idea that I may not even be attending college. In this society, college attendance is becoming more and more of a social norm. This is something my mother tells me often, as she reminds me that when she was young, her parents never expected her to attend. Going to college, she tells me, was one of the best decisions she ever made; one of her biggest regrets is that she went for only two years, as it was all she could afford. She is certain that, had she attended more, she would have been better able to provide for us.

As a family of seven, money has always been a little tight; I am used to growing up without the things my friends have. Phones, Ugg boots, and college trust funds were never something that my parents could give us themselves, and we grew up with the rule ‘If you can buy it yourself, you can have it.’ As a result of this, we all started work at a young age, and by sixth grade, I was helping my father clean a preschool, as well as an office building. He worked as a janitor there on the weekends for a little extra cash.

As I began seventh grade, my oldest sister was also beginning college. My mother, at the time an aspiring author, went back to work as a receptionist. With the help of her and my father, my sister finished her freshman year with minimal debt. A year later, my brother began attending college as well, and my parents split their efforts between the two. By her junior year, they stopped helping her financially, and the old rule, ‘If you can buy it yourself, you can have it’ reappeared. She is now a senior with below average debt, thanks to hard work and fortune with scholarships, without which, she never would have made it this far.

I know that me and all my siblings will have to utilize scholarships if we are ever to reach our respective graduations. I, as the fourth of five children, will have to work harder than ever to afford a college education.

Despite this, my parents never considered college a question for us. Excellent education was always one of their most fervent hopes for us, and we were lucky to attend the St. Johnsbury Academy free, due to the provision of the town we lived in. We knew we were lucky to attend such a prestigious high school, one that Calvin Coolidge himself attended.

Coolidge wrote his father often, and it is strange to read a letter from such a famous man with the town ‘St. Johnsbury’ written at the top. Something real, like this letter, connects me to the past the way no story could, and I marvel that he has written about my own school. These letters all seem to focus around the cost of things, train fare, boarding costs, and I wish I could be so good at understanding where I stood in this world of expenses. How helpful would it be to know exactly what you were spending, and what you were receiving, something which is becoming increasingly difficult.

Today, it is most often correct to state that in paying for college you are spending both money and time, either in class or working to pay for it, while you are receiving an education and a chance at a profitable occupation, but also great debt that must be paid, while the education you receive offers no guarantee of work.

Coolidge himself said, “I do not pay out except where the return is of more value to me than the money.” When Coolidge was young, and college was less of a social expectation, attendance was a better guarantee of a profitable job than it is today. Still, college would at least afford the opportunity of such a job, as well as a community of others who felt as I did, who learned for learning’s sake, and reveled in the knowledge they gathered. I have always been like that; coveting information the way a dragon covets its gold. How wonderful would it be to posses a glittering hoard of knowledge, and how fantastic that there are organizations designed specifically to give me one.

The thought of attending college is so terribly alluring, but the cost, when you are not wealthy enough to ignore it, is more than a minor obstacle. As Coolidge asked, is the return truly of more value than the money? I would like to think that it is, but liking to think something is not the same as thinking it.

One must, of course, take into account the many scholarships available to students. These scholarships can make all the difference to students who would not otherwise be able to afford a higher education.

If pressed to choose, I would have to say that, no, a higher education is not worth the cost. When forced to pay for it in its entirety, college would simply not be a feasible option for me, or many others. Scholarships, however, can miraculously tip the scales in favor of a higher education. These are what make college possible for a fair number of students. I think Coolidge would agree with me, when I say that a higher education is, for me, worth a cost, but not the full cost. Though receiving a higher education would be an enriching and eye-opening experience, it is worth it only if the cost can be reduced to something more accessible.