Calvin Prize for Vermont Youth: Ethan Forster (Winner)

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.

College Is Worth It, Not Just for the Money

Submission by 2015 Calvin Prize Winner
Ethan Forster Danville, VT

College in the 21st Century has become overpriced and competitive, something an education was never meant to be. According to the College Board, the average cost of a private education is over $30,000 a year. However, the reason college is so expensive is that it can be. A college education gives graduates such a large advantage over their high school educated peers that colleges can now charge arbitrarily large amounts and still get many times the number of applicants they need to build their freshman class each year. Calvin Coolidge knew this: he went to Amherst, a very expensive private college, because he knew it would pay off as an investment. Although it seems unfair and unnecessary for education to come at such a high cost, most motivated high school students feel that college is necessary for a successful career and even a successful life. Unless you are unusually innovative or talented, college seems to be the only way to break into the upper middle class. And let’s face it: most Americans, most humans, are more interested in moving up the societal ladder than they are in expanding their minds or learning fascinating new things. This conflict of success measured by money and success measured by happiness is what makes “Is college worth the cost” more than a simple question.

As a purely economic investment, there is almost no doubt that a good college education will over time pay back its cost many times over. This is how Calvin Coolidge viewed education. In his letters to his dad, he demonstrates that money was his main concern. Even as a high school student at St. Johnsbury Academy, Coolidge was thinking about the “profitability” of his term there. The college system is set up with this same mindset. Average starting salary and job placement ratings are often advertised more than the level of education provided. These numbers vary greatly depending on the major. According to Dawn Dugan, economists who get their degree from a public college can get over a 200% return on their investment (ROI) over 30 years. Meanwhile, many Americans spend tens of thousands on an elite education in something less profitable, say art or religion, and stay in debt most of their lives. In the 21st Century, college may only be worth the money for certain degrees and career paths. The degrees with the biggest returns seem to be science and math related subjects, like economics, engineering, or accounting. (Dugan, 2015)

However, money doesn’t, or shouldn’t be, the only measure of success. While visiting colleges in Colorado this summer with my dad, I got an interesting insight into one of the schools I was visiting from the parents of a recent graduate. When asked if their son liked the School of Mines, they replied, “Well, he likes the salary he’s getting now.” Mines is renowned for giving future engineers the precise skills they will need in industry. Business come from around the world to recruit students, and many are promised 80 thousand dollar salaries before they even graduate. Clearly, going to Mines is a smart economic investment. But is it a good education? In making the pivotal decision about where I will invest my family’s money, I think it is important to look beyond the financial return a specific college may provide. Instead, I want to investigate a more intangible value: the quality of the education I will receive. The most enjoyable part (and I would argue the most valuable part) of an education is when we actually learn new things. It’s the moment in English class when we discover a little piece of humanity, in physics when we reach a greater understanding of the universe around us, in history when we find a pattern in human culture. This is what college should do: develop one’s ability to think, not one’s ability to make money.

Even though Coolidge though of college in terms of whether or not he would make back the money he had spent, he knew that there were more important things than money. In a 1926 speech addressing the Declaration of Independence, Coolidge said, “We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.” (Coolidge, 1926) Clearly, Coolidge recognized that material possessions are not everything. This is the danger of viewing college as a purely economic investment. It should be more than that. College should be viewed as an opportunity to make a living doing what we love, to learn new things, to become a wellrounded person. This is why I believe college is worth it for me, not just because it will pay back its own cost.

Sources Cited:

Calvin Coolidge. (1926, July 5). The Inspiration of the Declaration. Retrieved September 25, 2015, from www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primarysources/calvin-coolidge-challenges-progress-in-the-name-of-the-declaration-ofindependence

Dawn Dugan. (2015). 8 College Degrees That Will Earn Your Money Back. Retrieved September 25, 2015, from www.salary.com/8-college-degrees-that-will-earnyour-money-back