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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 / May 15, 2009

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.

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor

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Colchester, Vt.

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.

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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.

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