[Lizzie Camfield, a 2022 graduate of Sterling’s Wendell Berry Farming Program, practices draft animal power systems with North and Star, a young oxen team. Photo by Abigail Bobo.]

Everyone who works in the field of higher education knows that the escalating affordability issue redefines the way we talk about the value of a university degree. When students, parents, and donors asked us to quantify the return on investment, the transformative power of knowledge and curiosity that was exposed in almost all university mission statements disappeared in the background. We have provided average wages, employment rates and other indicators to support the argument that by spending money now, we will teach you the skills needed to make more money in the future.

There is a self-evident expectation in this commitment that when you express your gratitude for education by providing large financial contributions to the institution in the future, we will also benefit from your success.

The widespread use of these indicators and related attitudes towards philanthropy are detrimental to our collective success. Not only as a member of higher education, but as residents of our community, citizens of our country, and residents of our planet. By maintaining the attitude that the solution is always “make more, build more”, we are adjusting a way of thinking to promote the extractive economy, promote ecological degradation, normalize human rights violations, and make people accept insecurity and injustice by default The working conditions of the country have widened income inequality, the accumulation of wealth has been tilted sharply towards those who are already at the top, and the efforts to promote social welfare are undermined.

In the past 20 years, Sterling College in Vermont—my alma mater—has become another option for the higher education industry. Sterling’s mission is to use education as a force to advance ecological thinking and action through affordable experiential learning, preparing people to become knowledgeable, skilled and responsible leaders in the communities in which they live.as a Work academyRegardless of financial needs, all students contribute to the operation of the campus. Sterling invites students, faculty and staff to participate in work, learning and the community through personal responsibility for the common good.

No one joins Sterling just to open a path to salary. The career choices our graduates make as researchers, farmers, entrepreneurs, wildlife biologists, teachers, artists, and leaders of non-profit organizations have greatly strengthened their values. Their recognized contributions to the world in areas that are usually unrelated to high salaries prompt donors to support Sterling, so we can provide affordable education for all students and send graduates below average or without student loan debt. Go to all parts of the world to immediately engage in the work the world requires.

Students of Wetland Ecology at Stirling College visited Mississauga National Wildlife Refuge
[Wetland ecology students at Sterling College visit the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo courtesy of Sterling College.]

Sterling is eager to avoid tuition fees-a goal that requires charity. To achieve this goal, charitable donations currently account for more than half of the college’s budget revenue. However, unlike our counterparts in the higher education field, 90% of the operational support funds donated last year came from people outside our direct alumni community. 10% of alumni donations to the annual fund should not be interpreted as a lack of support; the proportion of alumni donating to Sterling is higher than the national average. In the last comprehensive campaign, more than one-third of alumni contributed.

Sterling’s other donors, including foundations, NGOs, and individuals, donate because they are committed to supporting the kind of education needed to solve the ever-increasing crises facing our society and natural communities. Sterling provides a compelling case for philanthropists and invites those who share our mission to invest directly in the education of students who will be dynamic changemakers.

In the process of showing our support cases to donors, we are often asked how we measure the impact of our graduates on the world. In 2019, Sterling tested its anecdotal hypothesis through a survey of all bachelor degree holders.

National alumni surveys at the university level usually get a response rate of 10% to 20%; Sterling listens to 75% of our graduates. In addition to questions about their students and their post-graduation experience, the survey also collected questions about their civic participation, community leadership roles, social justice participation, communication skills, appreciation of small communities, and the extent to which Sterling’s experience inspired enthusiasm And whether they feel that their work is contributing to the greater good.

Sterling graduates have high job satisfaction, with 75% of them working in their chosen field. 85% of people said they are satisfied with their work, even though they usually do not get a high salary, while the national average is only 51%.

The data proves that we can confidently say that our graduates have greater value to small and rural communities when they leave, show a high degree of civic participation, lead by example, become environmental managers, and are enthusiastic about work, thus generating positive results. The difference in impact. This is thanks to the donors who donated to Sterling as a means of investing in positive change in communities that need good jobs. They understand that when there are Sterling alumni sowing seeds, the world can better deal with the ecological and social crises we face, and they can devote themselves to this important work because they do not bear too much student debt.

Economic growth, gross national product, profitability, and individualistic capital pursuits are not enough for our society to flourish. Every generation who chooses Sterling has openly questioned and evaluated what it means to live a full and productive life. They care about the planet and the communities in which they live, and they seek a more comprehensive measure of success and happiness. When these less obvious benefits of higher education are essential and valuable and seek ways to fund education without putting students in debt, the promise of a better future awaits all of us.

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