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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 July 27 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Commencement 2010

Miami Dade College got former President Bill Clinton. The Foothill-De Anza Community College District snagged U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Rhodes State College welcomed Duncan’s top-ranking deputy, Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Education

U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan addresses graduates of Foothill College.

Another college commencement season has come and gone, leaving the nation’s community colleges basking in unprecedented attention as the national economic downturn continues to deliver a deluge of new students to their campuses.

From Boston to Biloxi, from Alaska to Alabama and everywhere in between, students at community colleges large and small donned caps and gowns and turned their tassels to signify a critical milestone in their educations.

For the students, it was a familiar rite of passage. For the colleges, it was affirmation of their new status as an essential pillar of the nation’s higher education hierarchy. Officials from Washington fanned out across the country to congratulate the newly-minted graduates and send them off to their next challenge.

Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, for example, spoke at Long Beach City College. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotamayor delivered remarks at Hostos Community College, the college her mother attended.

Speakers delivered the usual platitudes and praise but also made special note of the central role of community colleges in educating the country’s increasingly diverse population, as well as their role in reviving the country’s flagging economy.

At Miami Dade, the country’s largest community college, nearly 11,000 students received their degrees at seven separate commencement ceremonies. Clinton spoke at the commencement for the North and West campuses, which had better than 1,000 graduates from all corners of the globe. College officials said the college has students with roots in 182 countries. It leads the nation in awarding associate degrees to Hispanics and African Americans.

Overcoming Long Odds

“I thought that this institution, as much as any college in America, symbolized our future and today I feel that more strongly than ever,” Clinton said. “Ninety-six percent of the associate degree holders last year got a job in their field of study within a year in a terrible, terrible economy. This place works. It works for you. It works for America.”

Clinton noted that MDC graduates, like their community college counterparts across the country, faced long odds getting to graduation. More than half of MDC students are first-generation college students, and more than 60 percent are low-income.

The former president, from modest roots himself, said he was inspired by the new graduates,

“I asked to be sent the stories, the biographies of several students, and I got some I must say they were amazing, so I actually have read some of your life stories,” he said. “I suspect they are reflective of many of you.

“I know a lot of you had a tough time to get to this day. I know a lot of you, unlike young people who will go through this ceremony who came from super-privileged backgrounds. . . may think this is no big deal. This is a big deal to almost everyone of you because it was not an easy road. Not for you, not for you families, not for the others that helped you.”

Clinton said the diversity of Miami Dade, and the success of the students who marched on graduation day, bodes well for the country’s future.

“People have been betting against America since we started,” he said. “Now there are people who say that no country can possibly accommodate this kind of diversity. To them I say, you ought to come to Miami Dade. You are carrying the future of America in your hearts and minds. Whether we make it or not depends on whether more of us can look more like you, think more like you, act more like you. We have to find a way to embrace our diversity and affirm our common humanity.”

Across the country, in California, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan addressed graduates of Foothill College and De Anza College.

In addition to offering familiar words of praise and congratulations to graduates, Duncan used his talk at De Anza College to tout the importance of community colleges in reviving the economy and reaching the Obama administration’s long-term education goals.

“President Obama and I are huge believers in community colleges,” he said. “Community colleges are so central to building a competitive America and resilient workforce. And they are absolutely critical to meeting President Obama’s goal that America will once again have the highest college graduation rate in the world by 2020.”

Duncan noted that many prominent Americans started their careers at community colleges such as De Anza.

“An honor roll of distinguished students has studied here,” he said. “Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak attended De Anza — and they unveiled the first Macintosh computer at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts. Andrew Fire, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in discovering a mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information, studied here as a young teen.”

Day in the Sun

“Yet for all their many accomplishments, community colleges have, for too long, often been forgotten in light of the crucial role they play in higher education. Martha Kanter, your remarkable and tireless former president and chancellor, is correcting that oversight in Washington D.C. Her leadership is helping to shine a national spotlight on the critical importance and value of community colleges — this is community colleges’ day in the sun.”

A day earlier, at Foothill College, Duncan said the Obama administration is unalterably committed to community colleges, but also understands the difficulties they now face as enrollments grow and financial resources shrink.

“The Obama administration has provided unprecedented support for community colleges, though state budget cutbacks are making for hard times in higher education, and nowhere more so than in California,” he said. “But for America to succeed in the global economy, community colleges must not merely survive, but thrive. Under President Obama’s leadership, preserving and strengthening community colleges has become a core mission of the department.”

Kanter spoke at several commencements, including one at Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio. There, she stressed the value of a community college education.

“Community colleges are the hidden treasures in our higher education system. I know that Rhodes is one of those treasures,” she said. “In today’s world, we all know that there is an enormous value placed on education. The many graduates who stay to work in the region will contribute millions of dollars to the economy of west-central Ohio.

“Students with Rhodes degrees are much more likely to hold jobs that pay well. Area employers will benefit from increased worker productivity and the public will receive the benefits from an expanded economic base. Compared to someone with only a high school diploma, Rhodes associate degree graduates like you will earn almost $400,000 extra over the course of a career. To sum it up, if history is any indication, as Rhodes graduates you will earn more and contribute more, and you will be afforded more opportunities.”

Striking a theme she has sounded around the country, Kanter urged graduates to use their new-found status as degree-holders to direct others toward a college education.

“Let me ask you to strengthen your connection with someone who can benefit from a college education,” she said. “Reach out to a family member, a friend, or a colleague and encourage him or her to do the hard work that it takes to enter and complete college. Your connection will be an inspiration and role model. It will not only make a difference in someone else’s life, but you will also be helping your country by helping to meet President Obama’s 2020 goal to bring millions of students into and through higher education.

“You can do it one person at a time. You can help us build a democracy that serves the top 100 percent of Americans with an education that prepares them to compete in the global economy.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, community colleges conferred 750,164 degrees in 2007-08, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Observers believe the number has climbed since then; between fall 2007 and fall 2009, overall enrollment jumped by nearly 17 percent, to a total of about 8 million students.

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