After a long, sleepy winter at the Notch, the Coolidge Foundation was pleased to welcome 31 high school students from Salisbury School in Connecticut, who came up for a day of learning and debate on Friday, April 17th. Thanks to the generosity of one of their trustees, Mr. John Childs, the students were able to spend the day learning about the benefits and costs of college education. Their debate topic, Resolved: Attending college is worth the cost to students and their families, gave the young men the opportunity to think critically about whether or not a college education would ultimately reap the rewards they hope for.
The students debated this topic in light of President Coolidge’s grappling with college costs. Many of the letters he wrote to his father from 1891 to 1895 contain requests for the elder Coolidge to send money, for one reason or another. Tuition, room, and board at Amherst College, Coolidge’s alma mater, was about $8,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars in 1891, Coolidge’s freshman year. Today, the annual cost of an Amherst education now stands at more than $60,000.
We all know how allergic Coolidge was to debt. In the six years of his presidency Calvin Coolidge never ran a budget deficit, a feat that has not been replicated by any president since. He also paid down one-third of the outstanding national debt, bringing the total debt held by the government to $16.9 billion in 1929 from $22.3 billion in 1923. Given the large sums of debt that students incur to finance higher education these days, it’s likely that Coolidge would have balked at the prospect of financing college in such an expensive manner.The Coolidge family was able to afford the tuition at Amherst for Calvin’s undergraduate education, but when it came time for move on to the next chapter of his life, Calvin chose a more affordable route. Instead of heading to Boston to attend Harvard Law or to Yale in Connecticut, Calvin went to the Law Offices of Hammond and Field and read the law. This apprenticeship method of legal training has almost entirely died out in the United States, but it was quite common in the late 19th century. Thus Calvin eliminated the need to finance a law school education, but was still able to accomplish his goal of becoming an attorney.
This issue is highly contentious, and people of good will can and do disagree strongly about the relative costs and benefits of college education in the 21st century. The important truth to remember, however, is that through debate young people learn to think critically about important issues and to argue forcefully, but respectfully, in the context of our civil society. As a man who held strongly to his conservative principles, yet never openly disparaged a political opponent, President Coolidge would certainly applaud our commitment to training young people for citizenship in a manner that encourages respectful dialogue. We are grateful to Mr. John Childs, Headmaster Chisholm Chandler, Dean Hilary Barhydt, and Ms. Jennifer Siff for making this debate day possible.