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Commentary: Graduation, COVID-19 And Our Future


The following is a commentary from Dr. Robert Smith, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Whether you are a dean, faculty member, parent or student, or know someone who is graduating from College or University this year, Spring 2021 Graduates deserve some extra applause.

Our campus celebration is happening in May, like many universities, while other institutions will be holding graduations well into June. Our campus ceremony will be held in two parts to accommodate COVID 19 social distancing and health precautions while still offering a personalized graduation experience for our students and their loved ones. There will also be a virtual ceremony for those electing not to participate in person.

That’s important to share because despite the COVID Pandemic, and its heartache and disruption, college and university students across the country have faced, they nonetheless successfully completed their studies and will be graduating this Spring 2021.

For those graduates it is inspiring to think about the effort it took to complete their programs of study, for families to support them, for faculty and staff to teach and deliver under ever changing circumstances, for the health providers on campus and in the community to keep them safe, and for the higher education community to try to provide a supportive environment for all its students. There were some gaps and missteps along the way, but somehow and someway courses were taught, tests administered, projects and papers completed, and grades turned in.

For those graduates who have managed this difficult time whether to earn your bachelors, masters or doctorates, you deserve our heartfelt congratulations.  Whether you are here in our State capital, across Illinois or spread over the Midwest or nationwide we celebrate with you. But, you should know we are celebrating not only for your accomplishments, but for our own sakes as well. Why would I say that?

Research shows that there is a clear economic edge for those who earn bachelor's degrees over those with a high school diploma. Moreover, the rate of return on the investment of paying for college is high enough to make the decision to go to college a wise one for most students. The cost of college is going up, certainly, but that doesn't mean the return is not worth it.  "At nearly 14 percent, the return to college easily exceeds various investment benchmarks, such as the long-term return on stocks (7 percent) or bonds (3 percent)."  That data according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Report in 2019.

As for those students graduating with a masters or a doctorate, you are pursuing a “higher calling” whether as a credential for your profession, personal growth and opportunity, or as a key step for your future employment or career endeavors. The point is still the same, there is indeed a value added to your advanced degrees. The time and effort and expense is worth it in pursuit of those future goals.

These days, the pursuit of a college degree itself seems to be questioned or undervalued or even looked down upon by some. And I suppose that’s a perspective to be evaluated. But, that really misrepresents the purpose of college and higher learning in the first place. To seek knowledge for the pursuit of knowledge is the highest calling human beings can aspire to. This knowledge frees us, it elevates us, and it inspires us.

Advances in technology and medicine would not be with us without this quest for higher knowledge. Whether it’s the car you drive to work, airplane you fly heading on vacation, the x-ray of cavities at the dentist, the cell phone you use, banking online, or the next SpaceX ship to mars, none of this would be possible without the pursuit of higher education and knowledge. Without college and advanced knowledge we would not know of the great philosophers of our age, literary giants, prominent leaders, the conditions of this planet, the growth of the stock market, and history of mankind. Nor would we develop the capacity of our society to understand and improve our means and mechanisms for democracy.

At the same time, this is not to dismiss the many other avenues to success and meaning in society. Skilled trades, service sector employment, entrepreneurship, support roles, military careers all represent meaningful career pathways. These dedicated employees and employers also deserve our thanks and appreciation.

For young people and others considering a college degree (2 year, 4 year or beyond) it should not be an either or proposition. One path is not better or worse or more special than any other. Whatever their choice, our society will be better served.

But for those who have pursued a college degree and have dedicated 2 or 4 or more years to your studies, you have gained a great deal of knowledge, insights, experiences, views, credentials  and direction to move forward in life and career. Take those abilities to communicate, think critically, and appreciate all perspectives, and let them guide your path for the future.

For indeed you carry a special obligation to embrace knowledge, make discoveries, ask questions, pursue leadership roles, promote views and succeed in life no matter what your calling. College graduates are special, but with that accolade comes responsibilities of tact, modesty and professionalism. These attributes will become your calling card and wear them well!

At some levels you carry a great deal of expectations on your shoulders. The value of your education to the broader community is how you use that degree and knowledge in pursuit of a greater public good. When you do that, and others see that, and your contribution will become even more well received and impactful.

Some may question the value of a college degree or the type of college degree you have earned. They may wonder why you went to college, question what you learned, and maybe fear your indoctrination by someone. I sincerely hope you can respond that you went to college to improve your prospects of future opportunities, to gain a wider knowledge of the people and world around you, and the ability to think on your own and consider thoughtfully all views.

In doing so, you go forth into the community, state, nation and world to make a positive impact that only you can make. Cherish your degrees not as an end to studies (and some piece of paper or credential), but as your life framework for success and improving the world.

I, and my colleagues, your family and friends, and citizens at large, congratulate you and wish you all the best life has to offer. Graduates of 2021…we applaud you!!!

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