Everyone working in higher education knows that the escalating problem of affordability has redefined how we talk about the value of a college degree. The transformative powers of knowledge and curiosity that lie exposed in nearly every college mission statement disappear into the background the moment we are asked by students, parents and donors to quantify return on investment. We present average salaries, employment rates and other metrics to support the argument that by spending money now, we will teach you the skills needed to make even more money in the future.
Embedded in this promise is an unspoken expectation that we also will benefit from your success, when you show your appreciation for your education by making abundant financial contributions back to the institution in the future.
The common use of these metrics and the associated attitude toward philanthropy are a disservice to our collective success. Not just as members of the higher ed profession, but as residents of our communities, citizens of our nations and inhabitants of our planet. By perpetuating an attitude where the solution is always “make more, build more,” we are conditioning a mindset that feeds an extractive economy, fuels ecological degradation, normalizes the violation of human rights, enables the tacit acceptance of unsafe and unjust working conditions, widens income inequality, tilts wealth accumulation sharply in favor of those already at the top, and undermines efforts to promote social good.
Over the past 20 years, Sterling College in Vermont—my alma mater—has emerged as an alternative to the industry of higher education. Sterling’s mission is to use education as a force to advance ecological thinking and action through affordable experiential learning that prepares people to be knowledgeable, skilled, and responsible leaders in the communities in which they live. As a work college, where all students contribute to the operations of the campus regardless of financial need, Sterling invites students and faculty to engage in work, learning, and community through a lens of personal responsibility toward the common good.
No one attends Sterling simply to forge a path toward a paycheck. The career choices our graduates make as researchers, farmers, entrepreneurs, wildlife biologists, teachers, artists, and nonprofit leaders strongly reinforce their values. Their proven contributions to the world in fields that are not typically associated with large salaries has motivated donors to support Sterling, so we can provide an affordable education to all students and send graduates off into the world with below-average or no student loan debt in order to immediately engage in the work the world is calling for.
Sterling aspires to be tuition-free—a goal that requires philanthropy. Toward this aim, charitable gifts currently make up more than half of the college’s budgeted income. Yet unlike our peers in higher education, 90 percent of the money donated last year for operating support came from those outside our immediate alumni community. The 10 percent contributed to the annual fund by alumni should not be interpreted as a lack of support; the percentage of alumni that give to Sterling is higher than the national average. In the last comprehensive campaign, more than a third of all alumni contributed.
Sterling’s other donors, among them foundations, non-governmental organizations and individuals, give because they are committed to supporting the kind of education needed to address the accelerating crises facing our social and natural communities. Sterling provides a compelling case for philanthropists and invites those who share our mission to directly invest in the education of students who will become dynamic changemakers.
In the process of presenting our case for support to donors, we are often asked how we measure the impact of our graduates on the world. In 2019, Sterling tested its anecdotal assumptions through a survey of all bachelor’s degree diploma recipients.
National alumni surveys at the collegiate level typically garner a 10 percent to 20 percent response rate; Sterling heard from 75 percent of our graduates. In addition to questions about their student and post-graduation experience, the survey gathered data around their civic participation, community leadership roles, social justice engagement, aptitude for communication, appreciation for small communities, to what degree the Sterling experience inspired passion, and whether they feel their work is contributing to the greater good.
Sterling graduates report high degrees of job satisfaction, with 75 percent working in the fields of their choice. And 85 percent reported that they are satisfied with their work, despite the fact that they aren’t generally highly compensated, versus a national average of just 51 percent.
Evidenced by data, we can confidently say that our graduates leave with a greater value for small and rural communities, exhibit a high propensity for civic engagement, live by example, identify as environmental stewards, and hold a deep passion for work that makes a positive difference. This is made possible thanks to donors who contribute to Sterling as a means to invest in positive change in communities where good work is needed. They understand that the world is in a better position to tackle the eco- and social crises facing us when seeded with Sterling alumni who are able to dedicate themselves to this important work because they do not carry the burden of excessive student debt.
Economic growth, gross national product, profitability, and individualistic capital pursuits are not enough for us as a society to thrive. Each generation that has chosen Sterling has openly questioned and evaluated what it means to lead a full and productive life. They care deeply about the planet and the communities they inhabit, and they seek a more holistic measure of success and happiness. When higher ed accepts that these less tangible benefits of education are essential and valuable, and pursues ways to fund education without encumbering students with debt, the promise of a better future awaits us all.