Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth: Peter Eckhardt

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 Peter Eckhardt
St. Johnsbury, VT

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.

Colleges today are fundamentally different than colleges in Calvin Coolidge’s day. Gone are the days when one went to college for the express purpose of becoming a lawyer or doctor. Those who went to college were expected to instill great change in the world, and become the next president or business leader. Children are sent to colleges to affirm what their parents believe in, to tell society that it is correct. College has become an expensive, four-year ordeal in which students are subject to rape, hazing, and massive debt. A critically-acclaimed author, William Deresiewicz, wrote a book on how college, especially elite schools, are destroying rather than forming the minds of American youth. A quick Google search shows that pop culture shows college campuses as places of drug abuse and rampant partying. Media is rife with stories of college debt, and it takes former students decades to pay off their student loans, leaving them financially dependent. Still, people continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars satisfying what appears to be only an expensive societal expectation. Why is that?

Calvin Coolidge was devoted to the principles of economic independence and fiscal responsibility. Coolidge never took unnecessary risks, investing only when he foresaw a greater return than the money spent. For Coolidge, college and higher education were stepping stones to a greater position in life. Coolidge’s Amherst years, as demonstrated in his second letter, were spent expanding mental and financial skills. He attended lectures to learn different ideas even if he didn’t agree with them, as shown in the case of Dr. Johnson, and pursued knowledge he knew would benefit him in his life as a lawyer, as shown through his research on Webster, Burke, and Hamilton. Coolidge lent money, reinforcing his principles of economic sense and not paying when there was no greater predicted return. Coolidge applied these principles as described in his third letter, when he traveled to Boston at an expense of about $20, but expected a return of close to $200. Coolidge practicing law shows that his education was put to good use, and his spending money in order to receive a greater amount shows the frugality learned there.

Were Coolidge alive today, he would agree that college is worth it. To begin, the financial gain from college is invaluable. A study by the Pew Research Center shows college’s massive economic benefits, including that college grads ages of 25-32 earned an average of $17,500 yearly more than their counterparts who only have a high school degree. That same article also shows the continued devaluing of a high school degree, and that a college degree is crucial to a modern American existence. A 2014 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that those with a Bachelor’s degree had an unemployment rate of 3.5%, whereas those who had only a high school diploma was 6%. The same graphic seemed to show a positive association between degree level and income; those with various college degrees earning more than those without. In spite of this, some might make the counter argument that college is ultimately not worth the massive debt many incur while pursuing higher education. A Forbes article based on a study by the Federal Reserve illustrates that, after receiving a degree from a four-year college and incurring substantial debt, a college education is ultimately worth $830,000 more than a high school diploma. Obviously, there are numerous financial benefits to going to college, which Silent Cal would certainly approve of.

In addition to being an economically sensible man, Coolidge valued less tangible wealth. In his fourth letter, Coolidge sent his father birthday money to spend “frivolously,” proving he values emotional satisfaction as well as financial. Coolidge’s second letter detailed how he hopes to join a fraternity, although there is no clear financial gain. The letters show Coolidge sees the intrinsic value of new experiences. At modern day college, there are numerous examples of ways to find emotional satisfaction and new experiences. Most colleges have a great many opportunities available both on- and off-campus. For example, in the 2013/2014 school year, the University of Vermont offered 720 study-abroad opportunities, and 170 clubs. While attending higher education, students have access to incredibly large numbers of culturally-enriching experiences that can make them stronger as people and assist them later in life.

While college was worth it to Coolidge, is it worth it to me? My family is a typical middleclass family, and it has always been assumed that I would go to college. However, the very nature of this prompt shook this belief. When we began the college search last year, we saw massive tuition and fees at most colleges, but merely accepted that they were part of college. In doing my research, I was forced to examine alternatives to college, like investing the same amount of money potentially used for tuition, or starting a business. Time after time, I saw that there was a low success rate, and those who did not obtain a college degree earned less. I searched for other options to my intended major, zoology, to see if there were feasible ways to pursue this without higher education. The more I looked, the more I realized that college is the right thing for me and my family to do, both because of its intrinsic and extrinsic values. College is laden with opportunities to do research, travel, and experience new and exciting things. The financial benefits of college are enormous, and the immaterial ones are incalculable. The research process of this paper led me through numerous drafts and position changes, and ultimately changed my worldview. What about all the horrible things associated with college, then? I believe that, if one truly wants to make college worth the cost, it is up to the student to avoid these things and pursue one’s education in a way that would satisfy both the self and the memory of Calvin Coolidge.