Last year, I was honored to deliver the commencement address at my alma mater, Penn State.  It was held in Beaver Stadium, where over 100,000 fans stream in each Saturday during football season.

The students graduating that day would go out into an uncertain world.  A pandemic still wore on, the country and specifically their state was deeply divided.  

Yet they were graduating with a college degree and into a strong job market. As I mentioned in my remarks, they also had a support system that extended beyond their parents (who were themselves predominantly college educated) to include 700,000 alumni who would be there to help them with mentorship, jobs and opportunities.

Last week, I was also privileged to give another commencement address. This time, it was held in the gym of my high school alma mater.  For these students, life after graduation was less certain.  A pandemic was receding, their country still divided. Inflation and other factors were creating a less certain job market.  

This last fact was particularly relevant as only 36% of these graduates were going on to college. A small percentage were going on to trade school.  A few will be joining the military. The majority will simply be graduating into the world and a job market whose opportunities are limited.

When I graduated from high school, our students who went directly into the job force might be fortunate to land a job in local factories for Harley Davidson or Caterpillar.That is where members of my own family and several classmates went. Those jobs are now few and far between, the wages have stagnated or gone down and benefits have been reduced. The result of an increasingly non-unionized workforce and employers squeezing line workers in spite of increased profits.

For most of these students who will not go to college, they will be following the path of their parents.They will not have 700,000 alumni there to offer mentorship or a job. They will scramble to find good work that can provide basic opportunities to buy a home, raise a family and make a life.

I clearly have a bias towards higher education. I know I would not be where I am today without my degrees. I am also familiar with the arguments that criticize higher education.  I teach at two universities so I see some of them play out personally. Yet the facts still remain, 

As this report states, ”Workers with more education generally earn more, and they may also benefit from greater economic stability throughout their careers.”  On average, a bachelor’s degree will result in career earnings $1.2MM higher than someone with only a high school diploma. 

As I sat on that stage and watched each student walk by to receive their diploma, I found myself wondering about their decisions and their future.  How many considered higher education but couldn’t afford it?  Who was discouraged to pursue college as not being worth it (this was a message I received repeatedly from my mother’s husband at the time). How many just didn’t think college was for them?

As I said in my speech, there are many ways to create a good life – not all of them require a college degree. But they do require planning, resources, connections, and opportunities.

I also noted that talent and passion come in many forms. As I walked through the school on a previous visit I marveled at the sets created for their production of James and the Giant Peach. The tree created by the metal works department was a thing of beauty and art.  Such incredible craftsmanship on display.

As has been said many times before, potential is equally distributed, opportunity is not.

College enrollment overall is down by almost 1.5 millions students.  The decrease is largely driven by boys – who currently comprise only 40% of students enrolled in college.

Again this does not imply these young men have any less talent or potential as their college peers. But it does raise questions about what opportunities will be available to them not just today, but five, ten, twenty years from now? 

If their opportunities are limited, chances are, eventually, so will ours.

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