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Union Institute & University Commencement Address

Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation
Union Institute & University Commencement Address, Cincinnati, Ohio

Thank you, and good morning, graduates. I am very pleased to be here, and I want to thank President Sublett and the trustees for allowing me to be part of what is a life-changing day for all of you. It’s truly a privilege for me to be here to honor your achievement.

And make no mistake: It is a momentous achievement. Your degrees represent years of hard work and sacrifice, so 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. As you know first-hand, no one becomes a college graduate without the patience and support of loved ones. So I salute all of you here today—students, spouses, parents, children, friends and others—for this significant and shared achievement.

But I don’t want to stop with congratulations, however. You see, 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.

The nation needs your talent—now more than ever. Today’s labor market has made it clear—often painfully clear—that skills must be consistently honed … that no one can afford to “stand pat” with one’s education and expect to succeed. Well, as Union Institute and University students—and, as of today, Union graduates—you personify the wisdom of purposeful talent development. And now I urge you to make the most of that talent … to take the lessons you have learned here at Union and apply them with the same passion and perseverance that you have shown in reaching this important day.

Believe me: I appreciate the difficulties of your journey. Like many of you, I was a first-generation student … which means that, like you, I faced some obstacles along the way. Growing up in a working-class, immigrant family, we didn’t have a lot of money. But that didn’t matter: my parents still saw college as a requirement for my siblings and me, not as an option. And so I did what I had to do to afford a college education: Pell grants, work-study, summer jobs, student loans, private scholarships—you name it, I took advantage of it. And I can say without reservation that it was worth every effort. College has enriched my life immeasurably, and in innumerable ways. In fact, it has defined my professional life.

Today, as president of Lumina Foundation, I’m lucky enough to lead the nation’s largest organization whose sole purpose is to extend the benefits of college to millions more Americans. Before that, I spent many years working to help students prepare for college, get into college and stay there until they reach a glorious day like this one: graduation day.

What excites me most about days like today is that it is really the culmination of something bigger than any of us as individuals. As adult learners, you and your classmates are part of an immensely powerful wave of 21st century students—an amazingly diverse group encompassing a wide range of ages, ethnicities, income levels, family situations and life experiences.

You see, in many ways, American higher education wasn’t built for you—or for most of your peers in the 21st century student population. In fact, college was originally designed to educate just a favored few. Of course this elite model of higher education has changed over the decades, most dramatically in the last half of the 20th century, thanks to the GI Bill, the development of the community college system, and now, because of the democratizing potential of technology.

Clearly, these important steps have opened the doors of higher education much wider. The problem is, we’re still far from where we need to be in educating our citizens and preparing our nation for the demands of the global economy. In that increasingly complex and dynamic economy, a college credential is key—not just for individual success, but to ensure our collective future. In short, millions more Americans need postsecondary education—and we, as a nation, need them to be educated efficiently and well. That’s why innovative institutions like Union Institute and University are so vital: They represent the next step in the evolution of higher education.

Schools like Union—which are results-oriented, student-centered and responsive to the needs of adults, families and employers—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.

Now, we’ve heard from some naysayers recently that a college degree isn’t worth what it once was … that the time and effort and expense required to earn that degree may no longer represent a good 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 are changing quickly in our high-tech, global economy. This is one reason why, even during this lingering recession, the unemployment rate for people like you—graduates with bachelor’s, masters and doctorates—was less than half the rate for those who have not attained a degree.

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 your education 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 in which all of you will have to make your way.

I, for one, have every confidence that you will succeed in that world. After all, you’ve already proven yourselves to be pioneers. Here at Union, 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 in reaching out to you, as 21st century students. The instructors and administrators here at Union have been genuine partners in your journey and have contributed to your success. Still, when all is said and done, it is you—each of you—that we are here to celebrate.

You’ve worked hard to earn your spot in this ceremony. Today, with that piece of 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 again for inviting me to be part of it.

Tracy Chen

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