Mid-May through early June has a special significance for millions of Americans who embark on new paths in life. I’m not talking about new brides and grooms, although it is a wonderful time for them too. Rather I refer to all those people, young and old, who have reached an educational landmark and are about to receive diplomas or degrees.
Most words in the English language have more than one meaning. But there are a few special words which, in common usage, can be used to express concepts that are 180 degrees in opposition. One of these words is “commencement.”
The commencement address is one of farewell, but it also signifies the start of something new. It’s kind of like the glass being half empty or half full.
For most it marks the end of an ordeal, even if a pleasurable ordeal. It means an end, or at least a change in relationships that have been important with fellow students and teachers. But for almost all, it is also the start of something new and exciting. As an educator, I have participated in many commencement ceremonies, and, sitting on the other side of the dais, I could never help but feel pride in a job well done, by both students and faculty.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 3.3 million students will graduate from high school in America this year. That’s 3.3 million individuals moving into a new phase of life. It is a happy time for them and for their families.
But there is another side to the coin. The bureau also estimates that there are 56 million students in first through 12th grades. As a rough approximation, divide that number by 12 and you get 4.7 million as the average number of students per grade — a substantial difference from the 3.3 who will graduate.
That high school diploma is the gateway to both jobs and college. And even though those who drop out along the way can earn credentials through the GED, studies have shown that the GED is not really equivalent to the high school diploma, either in content or with respect to the future that most people achieve.
Forty-six percent of 18 and 19 year olds will go on to college. For them, it is a time of high excitement. By now they’ve all gotten through the tension of waiting for their letters of acceptance, but the positive excitement that is building knows few bounds.
Most won’t yet know where their long-term paths will lead. Many look forward to a time of “freedom” as they move out of the home and away from parental restrictions. They will become part of the 18.4 million students who currently inhabit our four-year colleges this year, 80 percent of whom are full time. Fifty-six percent are women.
This year, 3.1 million will receive college degrees. Unlike high school graduates, their degrees are likely to put them on a specific career path, or at least a career area. Many will have worked their way through, adding the burden of employment to that of studies.
Some will go on to graduate school for advanced degrees, but many will jump directly into the job market. Unfortunately, it is a process which, given the current state of the economy, is fraught with a bit more uncertainty than usual.
Additionally, about one-fifth of four-year graduates will receive associates degrees that will help them with their career aspirations. Here, interestingly, more than 60 percent are enrolled part time while working. As a result, the average time to complete the two-year degree is about six years.
Education, for most people, requires some degree of sacrifice. At the childhood level, achieving a solid education means exercising the discipline to study when you might prefer doing something else. Often this requires parental intervention. For parents, it means getting involved, by participation in PTA and similar activities and by exercising discipline to ensure that learning takes place.
Elementary education is also a fun time, and in many cases, the fun can take over as the driving force. As a nation, the quality of our programs, as measured by test results, has been slipping in relationship to many other nations around the world, for many and complex reasons.
But the important point, when May/June rolls around is that, whatever the process may have been, millions of youngsters have made it though the basic part of their education and are now ready for new things. Parents can take pride in their children’s accomplishments, and the soon-to-be-learned, mistaken notion that they may now have earned some freedom from parental responsibilities.
Working one’s way through college is not an easy task, especially for older students who may have family responsibilities. The dramatic difference between the average time taken to get a four-year college degree and a two-year associate’s degree is but one indication.
Even without work, making good grades takes effort. Participating in “extracurricular” activities, which helps round students out, requires balance. College is a time of maturation, of building relationships, of acquiring knowledge, and for the perceptive student, of preparing for the future.
Throughout the nation, parents, grandparents, spouses and children are celebrating these commencement ceremonies. It is a time of joy, accomplishment and “payback” for all the support provided. But for the graduates, it is a time of excitement, adventure, perhaps some trepidation, as they move forward into the unclear future.
For all who are in this situation, warmest congratulations and best wishes for what is to come. For those who have gotten off the path, take a look at how to get back on; it will be enormously rewarding.
And on a broader scale, commencement signifies the hopes and aspirations for this nation. The 6 to 7 million people holding freshly printed documents attesting to their educational prowess will become part of the engine that makes us move forward and determines the paths we take. We owe it to them and to the nation to assure that they are adequately prepared and that they face as many open doors as possible. We should share in their joy of accomplishment.
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.