GUEST COLUMN: Commencement marks beginning, not an end

In a day punctuated by smiles, hugs and cheers, approximately 800 community college students received degrees and certificates on May 12 and moved into the next chapter of life.

We often refer to the ceremony as "commencement" rather than graduation. In the strictest dictionary definition, commencement means a beginning or a start. We like the way that sounds. It describes perfectly the transformation that's about to take place.

On that day, men and women crossed the stage at Arend Arts Center as Northwest Arkansas Community College students and stepped into a new future as graphic designers, nurses and business managers. Others are leaving our institution to begin studies at a four-year university.

We are part of the business of education, so it should come as no surprise that we think a college education is an important investment. But don't take our word for it. Look at the data:

• A 2013 study by Nexus Research and Policy Center and the American Institutes for Research found that even after factoring in the costs that graduates incur when earning the degree, the associate degree is a good investment. Researchers found a median net gain during a 40-year work-life of more than $259,000 compared with that of a high school graduate in the state where the community college is located.

• A Pew Research Center analysis of census and college cost data found that the typical or average high school graduate with no further education earns about $770,000 over a 40-year work life. The typical worker with a (two-year) associate degree earns about $1.0 million.

• In 2014, economists Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz analyzed data regarding salaries and the return on investment for associate and bachelor's degrees. In a Current Issues article of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, they wrote, "The return to a college degree has held steady for more than a decade at around 15 percent, easily surpassing the threshold for a sound investment." In a longer-term look at the years between 1970 and 2013, the economists found that those with an associate degree tended to earn 21 percent more than high school graduates.

That's the economic argument. As impressive as those numbers may seem, they can't tell the complete story that we have been able to witness many times over. We know an NWACC graduate who later pursued a bachelor's and a master's degree and is now a valued staff member supporting student life at our college. This year's outstanding alumna, Veronica Rodriguez Jones, earned a degree in graphic design and is now using her skills and talents at a nonprofit organization that serves individuals and families with children who have disabilities. At this organization, Veronica creates materials for parents and service providers and helps families find the resources they need to improve the quality of life for their children.

Every student crossing the stage at our commencement has a story, very much like those achievers. Each graduate is a testament to the power of self-discipline, resilience and determination. Each also bears witness to the value of having big dreams and pursuing them at top speed with tenacity and resolve.

Our 2018 graduates join a host of individuals who chose a community college as a starting point in adult life. A number of those who chose the two-year institution as their first attempt to grab the brass ring continued on to make significant contributions in science, entertainment and business, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. You've probably heard of at least a few of them: Fred Haise, the NASA astronaut who was the lunar module pilot for the Apollo 13 mission; George Lucas, renowned film producer, screenwriter and director; photographer Carol Guzy, who has won the Pulitzer Prize four times; and Steve Jobs, who with fellow community college student Stephen Wozniak, co-founded Apple.

Many students throughout Northwest Arkansas donned robes and mortarboards this month and celebrated a significant milestone. We join with our region's institutions of higher education in recognizing the success of the Class of 2018.

Author Toni Morrison, speaking at the 2004 Wellesley College commencement, said, "From my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art." To our graduates and to all of the region's college and university graduates, we say, "Congratulations! Now begins the journey to make your life true art."

Commentary on 05/23/2018

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