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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Sentimental cost of education

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$12 million. That’s the amount committed and paid after three installments by the alumnae of Sweet Briar College, as part of a mediation agreement towards a perilous, yet perhaps promising future. The agreement ensured that this small, women’s liberal arts college in the Blue Ridge country of Virginia would have a future for at least another year. Sweet Briar was supposed to close its doors forever this past August, with its board of directors citing “insurmountable financial challenges” to justify the closure. A painful spectacle unfolded, with students, faculty, and staff forced to transfer their studies or work elsewhere, not to mention the uproar from alumnae along with their supporters on and off campus.

In what seemed to be a victory only thought possible in the movies, a coalition of alumnae swooped in at the 11th hour. The mediation agreement in June allowed Sweet Briar to keep its doors open, followed by a swift change in leadership. Though enrollment shrunk compared to the year before, the start of this academic year saw 248 students return (with 80 others abroad). A majority of the faculty returned. Life would not have gone on, if not for the leadership and finances of the alumnae, whose belief in their alma mater is above admirable.

What then of us Carls? Would Carleton’s own alumni save it, in some terrible, hypothetical nightmare? It’s an awfully sensational notion, and I ask this fully aware of how drastically different both institutions are, even when categorized as LACs with Division III sports. Sweet Briar (SBC) offers wider course offerings through graduate studies and has a horseback riding program. Their students live on a campus further away from metro areas than other colleges. Some of these characteristics were considered factors that contributed to the finances that imperiled SBC in the first place. This is in addition to a small endowment, a perception of declining interest in women’s colleges, and questionable financial management. Their financial situation is unimaginable for Carleton, and I hope that the College will not imperil itself. Admittedly, a nightmare like impending closure is too dire, but let’s imagine anyway…

It is easy to argue that “of course we would save our school!” Better yet, we could argue it isn’t as likely to happen anyway because of our larger pool of alumni, among other factors. Even less dire events like a capital campaign could receive generous support. And we would do so, in part, due to a sentimental cost we associate with the college. It could also explain how SBC alumnae gathered enough funds to ensure the school’s opening this academic year. In my working definition, sentimental costs are the tangible, financial costs pertaining to our emotional attachments and associations with larger institutions such as Carleton. This kind of sentimental cost is one that’s not upfront, unlike what we pay now. Moreover, it’s a cost that’s brought up repeatedly, as the new alumni class of 2015 will soon experience (or will have experienced). They may hear from a reasonable and emotionally appealing pitch the college’s fundraisers, appealing to their altruism so that they may help finance the futures of other Carls.

The earlier question of how we’d respond to a possible financial nightmare at Carleton in turn raises a heavier question. Is an idea like Carleton or SBC – small LACs – worth saving beyond the emotions underlying sentimental costs? Or rather, are these institutions worth continuing and supporting? The argument that a liberal arts education at the post-secondary level need not be so confined to university or college walls, and that other paths to enjoying a liberal arts education exist, are viable arguments. They do not necessarily argue against supporting institutions like ours, but are more towards supporting newer, more inclusive institutions. I can speak for my younger sister, who in her first year in community college and engaged with the question of social equality through a sociology paper. That inquiry sounds like something that we think would happen here.

I would prefer to think that we should move towards a day and age where the kind of education we have here isn’t as confined to traditional colleges and universities, nor as expensive. Under the premise that a more educated species can do greater good for each other, in a Jeffersonian view, the tenets and standards of liberal arts should not be restricted. We should be open to changes that allow for necessary shifts, opening up education for all. This may even include the possibility of the end of several institutions, as Sweet Briar was close to reaching. It may help to detach ourselves emotionally from our schools, dispensing with sentiment. But as with any entrenched institution, we cannot decouple so easily from how we feel and how we do things. The SBC alumnae, in the space of about 4 months, struck a deal with the State of Virginia. Such endeavors aren’t taken up lightly; what powerful loyalty the alumnae hold! Could you imagine disentangling ourselves from Carleton emotionally? Find an alum, and the alum could go on about days in the classroom, nights at Sayles, evenings at Dacie’s, and of course Rotblatt. We still have an enormous capacity to feel for even ideas, and so we would be compelled to want to support Carleton, sinking our sentimental costs. Even those with transactional relationships with the college, can’t discount that their distinct, formative experiences, whether academic, social, or otherwise, would not have happened the way they did elsewhere.

Even with wishful thinking among some of us for a more equitable future for education, it will ultimately fall to time, and continued dialogue with all involved, giving a chance to shaping enough people’s thoughts over time. Most of us are yet to be ready for the kind of decoupling I mentioned. Not that I wholeheartedly endorse it either. Even with my reservations, I still feel strongly for a place that has taught me well about how to find perspectives from all corners, or why Maxwell’s equations matter in the grand scheme of all things physical.

When the time comes, and finance-permitting, I may indulge in my desire to “pay it forward” to this college. But when that time comes, I will be sure to pay it forward in other ways beyond Carleton, whatever innovations may come in the future, and barring any nightmare to befall the school.

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