In tough times, graduates (and parents) assess the worth of a liberal arts education

At one Vermont college, commencement's joys trump worries about debt, job prospects.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Nicole Marshall on the eve of her graduation from St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt. She majored in sociology/anthropology and Spanish, and says she's really satisfied with her education, despite the $20,000 in loans she'll need to pay off.
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    Secretary of Education Arne Duncan received an honorary degree from St. Michael's when he spoke at commencement ceremonies on Thursday. The former basketball player and superintendent of Chicago's public schools acknowledged the costs of education: "With those college loans to pay back, you're probably wondering, 'Just how much is a liberal arts education really worth?'"
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As Nicole Marshall posed for photos on the eve of her commencement, someone joked, "Smile – think of all the loans you took out for this!" She says she chose St. Michael's, a Catholic liberal arts college near Lake Champlain in Colchester, Vt., because it offered the biggest aid package, "but I'm still leaving with quite a bit of loans" – about $20,000.

Her debt is a little lighter than the national average for graduates of private, four-year schools who borrow: nearly $23,800 as of 2007, according to the College Board in New York.

But if there's any time that students and parents can take such costs in stride, it's during the heady rush of commencement, when the campus is fragrant with fresh blossoms and abundant hope. For added inspiration to help them focus on the value of learning, these families heard a commencement speech Thursday from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

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Standing head and shoulders above the others on stage, clad in academic regalia, the former basketball player and superintendent of Chicago's public schools acknowledged the costs: "With those college loans to pay back, you're probably wondering, 'Just how much is a liberal arts education really worth?' Albert Einstein said the value of a liberal arts education is not to learn facts, but to train your mind to think about things that cannot be learned from textbooks. So now you're probably wondering why you spent all that money on textbooks. The point is not that the facts are useless; it's just that the facts alone don't make you educated. It's how you put those facts together and what you do with them that matters. The real value of a liberal arts education is that it teaches you ... how to analyze a situation and make a choice."

Satisfaction and service

Despite graduates' limited job choices at the moment, Ms. Marshall says, "I'm really satisfied with the education I got here," particularly because of the small classes. Like many members of the Class of 2009, this sociology/anthropology major expects to spend time volunteering, perhaps with AmeriCorps, before finding paid work amid the economic funk. She's heading off to India on Monday for a college-organized trip to help orphans.

Her mother, Cindy Kent, is worried that too many Americans are "getting priced right out of college," but pride in her daughter is the dominant emotion: "Nicole is going to save the world and write us a recommendation letter into heaven," she says with a laugh.

More than three-quarters of St. Michael's students participate in service by the time they graduate, President John Neuhauser says. Forming values and becoming educated for a lifetime is the goal of a liberal arts education, but that notion is "under considerable stress," he says, as people feel more and more pressured to focus on skills for a particular career.

Wondering about the payoff

For parents paying most of the bills at a place where tuition and living expenses added up to nearly $40,000 this year, it's difficult not to wonder what the payoff will be when the career path isn't immediately clear for their child.

Suzanne and Keith Burnham's daughter, Emily, just graduated from St. Michael's, but they've got three more years of college bills for their son. "We're really feeling the squeeze, and the job market is a concern for us – whether or not Emily will be able to find a real job after completing these four years in a liberal arts school," Ms. Burnham says.

Emily, for her part, wonders if the school could spend money more wisely, especially when she sees lavish sports expenses. But despite the cost, "I feel like it was worth it," she says.

Her dad muses that it might be better economically if the parents just put the money in an investment account and let it grow to supplement what the student could earn in a minimum-wage job. But he acknowledges that college "is a great way to grow up" and to find more interesting work.

Words from America's education secretary

In his brief speech, Secretary Duncan noted how privileged these graduates are, given how many young people in the US don't get as far in their education. Almost half who start college don't finish within six years, he said. He also shared his experience in his mother's tutoring program in Chicago, learning alongside low-income students, some of whom went on to be surgeons and executives. That's one reason he's come to believe in "education's power to break the barriers of poverty and ignorance that divide us."

Perhaps the person in the audience with the longest-range view of the value of education was Emogene McRae, whose grandson sat among the sea of black mortarboards with purple and gold tassels. "I'm 75, and I went back to school at 40 and got my GED, and now that I see the kids struggling, I wish more kids would do the same thing," she says.

US steers $100 billion to education

President Obama has set a goal that by 2020 the US should be top in the world again in the portion of the population with a college degree. To pave the way, he's channeling more than $100 billion in federal stimulus funds into education and is pushing Congress to change grant and loan policies to make higher education more accessible and affordable.

"Some say it's too ambitious," Duncan said of Obama's plans for everything from education to healthcare reform. "But how would you respond if someone said that you were too ambitious? You would not scale back your ambitions. You wouldn't cut your dreams in half, and you absolutely shouldn't, and neither will this president. He believes Americans are hungry for change, and he is confident that your generation has the intellect and imagination to meet our nation's challenges."

"He was amazing," new graduate Jade Csizmesia says of Duncan and his speech. "It's hopeful that a lot of money is being spent on education." As a journalism major, she's "a little bit nervous" about job prospects. But her mother, Joan Csizmesia, is so confident in her daughter that she turned the joke about graduates moving back in with their parents on its head: "We'll be paying that loan off for quite some time.... We'll be moving back in with her!"

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