Why College Matters More Than We Know

Welcome to May! It is a time for spring to bloom in northern states like New York and Minnesota and for my home state of Florida to begin the slow march to summer. May is also a time for reflection and the promise of tomorrow because at colleges and universities all over the United States we are celebrating the rite of graduation. A time where students from all sorts of backgrounds and abilities line up, receive their caps and gowns, and are declared alumni. I myself, have had the pleasure and honor to graduate three times. I earned my B.A. from East Carolina University in 1995, my M.S. from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 1997, and my Ed.D from Texas A&M – Commerce in 2011. Each time I walked across that stage it was special and I really understood the gravity of what was happening. I was fulfilling the hopes and dreams of my family, that I would soar past where they worked so hard to bring me to. Neither my father or mother completed college.

That is why I get a little miffed when I hear students, parents, politicians, and business leaders refer to higher education as merely a conduit to a job. I get it, I too did not go to college just to think deep thoughts and to become a better person. When I enrolled at East Carolina I had a career on the brain. I wanted to find a job and make money. And we know that for the vast majority of college students and their parents that is why they attend as well. According to a 2016 Gallup poll over 80% of students believe a college degree is a pathway to a good job and it why they attend college. So the direction is a good one. It’s the hyperbole that surrounds it that I find troublesome.

How many of us think of our house as simply a place where we shelter from the elements? After all, a house is nothing more than shelter from the heat and cold, the rain and wind of nature. But that is not how we think of our home. Our houses are an extension of our family. In addition to providing shelter we decorate and outfit our home for comfort, to protect our family, to make memories with our families, to celebrate holidays, to express our personalities, and to feel as if we are in a place where we belong. We look for certain home features to suit our needs; its where we sleep at night but also where we raise our families, fall in love, cry when we lose loved ones, care for each other when we are sick, and miss when we are gone.

That is why a college education means so much more than just a conduit to a job. This past week the three universities I work with in the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities celebrated their graduation ceremonies. For the most part they all looked the same. Fancy regalia on faculty, anxious families snapped photos, graduates lined up and walked across the stage, and degrees were conferred. In all over 20,000 degrees were awarded at the Florida International University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of South Florida. Amongst those graduates was Dr. John Voepel who received his Ph.D in Philosophy at the age of 81 from the University of South Florida. 81 year old people do not complete their degrees if these things were just for getting a job. At UCF Jaha Dukureh, a NOBEL PEACE PRIZE NOMINEE!! “surprised” her family with her graduation with a Master’s Degree. Think about that for a minute, a woman who’s work on ending female genital mutilation earned her a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize found that a degree was the real surprise. And finally, Noemi Reyes earned her degree from FIU. This woman went from homeless to graduate in a few short years and now transitions into a career in sales with the InterContinental Miami Hotel. And these stories only scratch the surface. Thousands of students graduated with stories of their own on why that degree means more than a job.

College matters. These stories matter. We know that the unemployment rate for college graduates is half the rate for all other workers and that we need to work harder to make college more affordable and ensure every graduate finds a job. We support the Florida Board of Governor’s and emphasis on social mobility through education and employment and that our universities have a responsibility to support that effort. But what we cannot forget is that these degrees mean so much more than what graduates can do with them. They are a symbol of hope for millions. They are the payoff for the hard work of parents and families, the discipline of balancing studies and life, the knowledge that access means something. When I received my degree in 1995 my father wept. He knew what it meant to our family. I had moved from being the son of a dialysis tech to my father now being the dad of a college graduate.

This past weekend I also got to help close that circle for my friend and colleague David. I served as his mentor and co-chair for his Ed.D. As I hooded him for his doctorate I could not help but think of his parents and family, his wife and friends in the audience looking at him, knowing their love and care had paid off. He was now Dr. David and that means something. We all need to remember that. I hope my work can help remind policy makers and politicians that as well. Happy graduation.

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