May 31, 2015
by Catherine Bond Hill, President
Hello everyone! Parents, family and friends in the audience, distinguished faculty and trustees seated behind me, featured speakers for today’s program, and especially, the robed-and-ready Class of 2015 – Hello and welcome to Vassar’s 151st Commencement!
I also want to acknowledge the many others who have a hand in making a Vassar Commencement such a lovely event. Some are here in evidence today, such as the Daisies, African Violets and Ushers, and some are here behind-the-scenes, or have done their work in the weeks leading up to today. You all know who you are, and I want to give my thanks for your hard work.
First and foremost, congratulations to the class of 2015… you have done it: you have taken the last exams, handed in the last papers, dotted the last i’s and crossed the last t’s. And later in this ceremony I will have the privilege of handing you your Vassar bachelor’s degree diplomas.
Perhaps not all of you know exactly what is coming next in your life; some of you are sure about what you will be doing in the coming year or two years, some will be headed off to graduate school or professional degree programs, and even some of you will be headed for jobs that you feel are a good long-term match for you. Whatever category you are in, your achievement that is marked by today’s ceremony, the attainment of a college degree, is a valuable key that will help you navigate the upcoming years.
Education has long been a cornerstone of the American Dream. In the last century, our country led the world in establishing a system where a high school level of education was something that all Americans had access to. And for a long time we also led the world in producing college graduates. In fact as recently as 1990, the United States ranked #1 worldwide for the percentage of the population in the 25-34 year-old age bracket that held a four-year degree. But we have slipped downward lately and according to the U.S. Department of Education, we are now #12. For the country as a whole this is troublesome because the higher education degree in the 21st century has really become what the high school diploma was in the 20th century: the passport to good jobs, higher quality of life and social mobility. In fact Vice President Joseph Biden stated in a recent address that by the end of the decade, nearly 2/3 of available jobs will require some degree of higher education.
Ironically, those who would benefit most by being able to compete for those jobs are the least likely to be able to finish a college degree. Due to the ever-widening gap in income inequality, access to higher education has become increasingly more difficult for young people from families at the lower end of the income distribution. Recent research shows that the ability to complete a college degree depends more on family income and race than it does on intellectual ability. We idealistically think of America as a land of opportunity, and especially a land of equal opportunity, where hard work, cleverness and self-improvement lead to upward mobility. But the fact is that this part of the American Dream is becoming more and more of a myth; the huge increase in income inequality in the past several decades that has made this dream virtually unattainable for many low income families.
I recently heard Paul Krugman, the NYT columnist and Nobel laureate in economics, describe the situation in America as one where it is becoming more and more common that social class is inherited rather earned through hard work and self-improvement.
I continue to believe that all colleges and universities can do more to attract and retain students from all socio-economic backgrounds. This will result in greater diversity first at our institutions, and later, especially if degree attainment can be kept high, greater diversity among the population that gets to compete for, and benefit from, better paying jobs.
These outcomes are obviously important for individuals and their families, but the benefits extend far beyond just increased earnings. Research shows that college-educated workers tend to be happier in their jobs, in part because they can compete for jobs that are better matched to their interests. Having a job that you love is really important to well-being. College-educated workers will also be more capable of switching jobs, because many of the skills that they learn in college (such as critical thinking, communication, scientific literacy, etc.) are portable from job to job. This is important because research also shows that now more than ever, people are likely to have multiple jobs over the course of their career.
The communities that college educated individuals reside in also benefit. It is known that having a degree is correlated to the likelihood that you will vote and be civically engaged in the community. College grads are also more likely to work as volunteers in community organizations. Thus these individuals tend to have a better sense of fulfilment themselves, but they also help to enrich the lives of those around them.
On campuses, increased diversity of all types is a benefit to the entire college community. By listening to each other, we hear and learn from a wider variety of views than would ever be possible if we were all alike. Homogeneity (or sameness within the population) is a good deal easier, but is a poorer preparation for entry into a messy, globalized world after college.
As we sit on the eve of an election year, with every week bringing new candidates entering races at every governmental level, I hope that the focus on the economy as a major issue will keep the topic of higher education in the forefront of the debates. I further hope that we will all have the opportunity to find candidates whose positions we can support and rally behind. Unless we change things, increasing income inequality will put pressure on the social cohesion of our nation. Commitment to America’s institutions and egalitarian values depends on individuals feeling that these institutions and values are fair. There is no more crucial example of this than our education system, which has historically been our most effective engine for equal opportunity and thus social mobility.
Making progress on these problems will not be easy… the good news is that today we send 611 more Vassar graduates out beyond the College’s gates to work on them. My confidence in the creation of a more equal society is based in large part on having watched you and gotten to know many of you over the past four years. Plus, you will join the ranks of over 30,000 living alumnae and alumni that have gone before you, and I know that, like they have, you will enrich, empower and improve the communities in which you live. Work hard. Vote. Write often. Godspeed.