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Most people think of “return on investment” in black and white terms – you get something in exchange for putting something (money, time, or talent) into an activity.

When you are talking about the arts in higher education, though, the spectrum of colors to consider is rich and unlimited.

Marlboro College

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Tight times have many colleges, including our own, carefully evaluating expense; how does one assess the return on expenditures on the arts? At a time when some colleges and universities are reducing or eliminating arts programs, we believe it’s more important than ever to invest in those programs that advance our core educational mission.

Marlboro College, a small Vermont liberal arts college of roughly 200 students, helps front production costs to make a feature-length film every two years. The “Movies from Marlboro” program challenges our own students, as well as students from numerous nearby colleges and universities, to focus their cameras and other production skills on Academy Award-nominated actors, creating a marketable work of art while earning both college course and professional film credit. In order to create these films, Marlboro partners with Jay Craven, a film professor, and his production house, Kingdom County Productions. Last year, Marlboro invested nearly $360,000 into this enterprise.

Much like a semester abroad program, “Movies from Marlboro” is a semester-long residential experience that puts students in an intensive learning environment. Students play virtually every film-related role, from scriptwriters, actors, camera operators, and casting directors to costume designers. Then, after being immersed in the creative filmmaking process, students learn about the business of films by marketing their work. This rigorous experiential learning not only provides students with a hands-on education regarding how to make a film, it helps them develop the business savvy essential to a career in the performing arts, savvy which can also be applied to many other global life-pursuits.

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Producing these films isn’t exclusively about the process of making films – the film is a product of the skills that students are honing. We believe this is a fundamental educational exercise rooted firmly in the liberal arts. It requires students to think about storytelling and, ultimately, helps them find their passion. Making a film requires creativity, patience and strong interpersonal communication skills.

But as purse strings tighten, funds dedicated to the arts are often the first on the cutting block. We believe that “Movies at Marlboro” is a smart investment since it teaches invaluable life skills supplementing classroom learning. How else, can students get to understand the potential disruptions to any venture, such as delays because of weather or when essential tools are used improperly, including when a scene isn’t lit well or cameras aren’t focused? Students learn that mistakes cost.

Marlboro College
Marlboro student Luke Becker-Lowe and others scout the scene with instructor Brad Heck. Credit: Photo courtesy of Marlboro College

“Movies at Marlboro” has now produced two films: Northern Borders and Peter & John. Northern Borders stars Academy Award-nominated actors Bruce Dern and Geneviève Bujold and tells the story of a 10 year-old boy who is sent to live on the Northern Vermont farm of his grandparents, whose thorny marriage is known as The 40 Years War.

Peter & John is an adaption of Guy De Maupassant’s 19th-century novel, and stars 2014 Golden Globe winner Jacqueline Bisset (Day for Night, Bullitt) and Emmy winner and Tony nominee Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue, Glengarry Glen Ross).

In addition to working with outstanding actors and learning every step in the production of a full-length movie, “Movies at Marlboro” students learn another invaluable life-lesson in helping recoup the college’s investment. Students take the film around to theaters, fire halls, and arts venues throughout the Northeast. For example, Northern Borders, visited more than 120 towns in New England. While many young people aspire to be filmmakers and artists, “Movies” teaches them the hard work required to make a career in the arts.

With the good fundraising work of students in the “Movies at Marlboro” program, we’re proud to say that this program has ultimately not cost the college a dime while delivering a priceless educational experience. Marlboro isn’t seeking a profit when making these films, but rather we want to provide an unforgettable learning opportunity.

Some things are much bigger than a financial return on investment. These are the things that speak to the soul and inspire lifelong passions. While our upfront costs may be great, the educational experience we are providing is life-altering and incalculable by a simple return on investment.

Kevin F. F. Quigley is president of Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont. 

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