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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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!"