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Excelsior College Commencement

Remarks by Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation
Excelsior College Commencement, Albany, NY

Thank you, and good afternoon, graduates. I am very pleased to be here and to congratulate all of you on this life-changing day. It’s truly a privilege for me to join your professors, President Ebersole and the leaders of Excelsior College as we honor your achievement.

Watch the full commencement speech | 10:18

And make no mistake: It is a wonderful achievement. Your degrees represent years of hard work and sacrifice, and I commend each and every one of you for that effort. And as I commend each of you, I also want to take a moment to note the contributions of your families and friends—many of whom have traveled from around the country to be here today with you. As each one of you now knows first-hand, no one gets to this stage alone. No one becomes a college graduate without the patience and support of others ― an understanding spouse … cooperative children … helpful aunts, cousins, parents and other family members and friends. So I salute all of you for this significant—and shared—achievement.

I don’t want to stop with congratulations, however. I also want to thank all of you for what you have done. You may not fully realize it now—particularly on a day like today, which is properly focused on celebrating personal victories—but the degree you’ve earned isn’t just about you, or even the loved ones who share this moment with you. It benefits all of us as Americans.

You see, you are the solution to our nation’s most vexing problem. You, and other graduates like you, are the answer to America’s most pressing need … the need for talent.

The strength of our nation—of any nation ― is the talent of its people: the sum total of the knowledge, skills and abilities inherent in its citizens. Only with sufficient talent, and the right kinds of talent, can we meet the demands of the exciting, rapidly changing—and yes, at times somewhat terrifying new era in which we all live.

I know you’ve felt the pressures of that new era. I’m told that the average age of this graduating class is 37 … that the overwhelming majority of you are, like me, the first generation in your families to graduate from college … that most of you held down jobs while attending classes here at Excelsior. In fact, many of you have been in the workforce for decades. You live and work in the real world. You know first-hand—and better than anyone ― how quickly and how profoundly that world is changing.

Many of you have lived through the hard times, no matter what part of the country you come from. Here in upstate New York, more than 100,000 traditional manufacturing jobs were lost between 2000 and 2008. And you’re here today, as the region—like many other across the nation—makes an historic shift to advanced manufacturing and other leading-edge industries such as life sciences and biotechnology. In fact, a fair number of you are very much a part of that historic shift. You’re here today to accept degrees in technology or nursing or health sciences.

Whatever credential you accept this afternoon, however—whether in liberal arts or business or public service ― you’ve been part of another historic shift … a change that might even be more significant than the shift to high-tech employment. I’m talking about a monumental shift within higher education itself: the shift away from the traditional idea of “going to college.” Your experience here at Excelsior ― an experience geared to adult students, one rooted in online learning and designed specifically to meet students’ needs—represents the future of higher education.

You and your Excelsior classmates are part of an immensely powerful wave: the wave of 21st century students. It’s an amazingly diverse group encompassing a wide range of ages, ethnicities, income levels, family situations and life experiences. In short, it’s a group that represents all of America … and, as I said earlier, we need to tap into all of this nation’s talent if we hope to thrive in this demanding era.

Today more than ever, higher education is the key to unlocking that talent. Unfortunately, American higher education wasn’t built for the 21st century student. In fact, college was originally designed to educate just a favored few, the elite. Thankfully, that has changed, and more changes are coming.

Schools like Excelsior—which are results-oriented, student-centered and responsive to the needs of individuals, employers and society—these institutions are helping to redefine college. They are paving the way for a much-needed new approach. And every one of you is living proof that this new approach is working.

We’ve heard from some naysayers recently that a college degree isn’t worth what it once was … that, particularly as college costs continue to rise, the time and effort and expense required to earn that degree may represent a poor investment. We’ve heard that it’s better simply to possess an entrepreneurial spirit … that it makes more sense to actively pursue a passion in the “real world” than to spend years in the world of academe.

The naysayers sound persuasive. After all, who can argue with the idea of following your passion and working to shape your own destiny in the real world? The problem is, today’s real world won’t be tomorrow’s or the next day’s. Jobs, workplaces, even entire industries and sectors … all can change quickly in our high-tech, global economy. This is one reason why, according to a government report released just this week, the people who graduated from college in 2008—when the worst recession in our lifetimes began—have such a low unemployment rate. The value of a college education in this new economy just continues to grow.

More importantly, what we know about the future is that without the knowledge and skills and growth we gain from college—creative thinking, adaptability, intellectual curiosity, problem-solving, the ability to connect disparate ideas, communications expertise—without these things, real-world success is likely to be very short-lived.

I assure you, then, that college is worth it. It’s worth it because it prepares us for the world that is really real … the one that is constantly changing and challenging … the one that all of you inhabit.

I, for one, have every confidence that you will continue to succeed in that world. After all, you’ve already proven yourselves to be pioneers. Here at Excelsior, you’ve been on the cutting edge of change in higher education. You’ve learned in exciting new ways and, in many ways, you’ve set an example of innovation for others to follow.

Your alma mater has done a wonderful job of serving you, as 21st century students. For more than four decades, this institution has made higher education a reality for many thousands of striving individuals … students who, for many reasons, found the traditional path to college to be rocky—or even blocked altogether.

As students, you have certainly benefited from Excelsior’s success. But you also helped create that success. After all, when all is said and done, without you—without your dedication and resolve and hard work—there would be no success to celebrate, whether individual or institutional.

You’ve worked hard to earn your spot in today’s ceremony. Today, with that well-earned piece of paper in hand, every one of you is a step closer to realizing your dreams—and our society will be very much improved because of that.

I urge you to make the most of the opportunities before you.  Because, my friends, the 21st century is here. And you are the 21st century. So keep striving and do great things—for your own sake, and for all of the rest of us who share this “real world” with you.

Again, congratulations to each of you on this memorable day. And thank you for inviting me to be part of it.


Kate Snedeker

A series of reports show investing in employee tuition reimbursement yields significant financial payback.
See Talent Investment series