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The Gift You Give Yourself (2011 Fall Commencement Address, afternoon)

  • Date: 12/10/2011
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Commencement in December – does it seem a bit incongruous? Like baseball played in a snowstorm, or roast turkey served on the 4th of July? We expect certain events to occur at their customary time of the year, so perhaps a few of you may be thinking that caps and gowns don’t quite fit in with holiday shopping, lighting displays and brightly-wrapped presents.

    Nevertheless, today’s celebration is eminently suited for this season of gift-giving, because today, graduates, you take possession of one of the most powerful and transformative gifts you will ever receive. And it is a gift you have given yourselves.

    Of course, maybe it was your parents who footed all or part of the bill for this education, so let me explain why this is a gift you have given yourself.

    You see, a college degree cannot be bought or traded or bequeathed; it must be earned.

    Regardless of your program of study, you must have logged long hours at a computer, trudged through rain and snow to classes, stared in horror at a disappointing grade from an uncompromising professor, and found a way to meet or exceed the expectations we placed on you…else you would not be sitting here this afternoon.

    Yes, graduates, it is right that you honor the sacrifices others have made on your behalf. Be thankful for the vision and generosity of donors like James Oelschlager, whom we will honor later in this ceremony, for the scholarships and grants and other financial tools they provided. And please appreciate the fine faculty here, many of whom declined more lucrative careers in business or industry to pursue a higher calling of creating and transferring knowledge to a new generation of researchers, scholars and professionals.

    All of these gave you opportunities…but they did not give you a degree. That is a gift you earned for yourself through your own toil, perseverance and ambition.

    Do not be shy about that fact. After all, self-gifting has become something of a seasonal tradition as well, according to the National Retail Federation. In a report released just last week, the federation said as much as 40 percent of the purchases made in November and December are for personal use.[i]

    And why not? Prudence dictates that any good bargain is worth considering, regardless as to when it occurs.

    So let us take the wrapping off this brand new gift you have acquired, in order to fully appreciate its value.

    Over the course of your lifetime, you are likely to earn far more than your peers who do not earn a degree. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a median lifetime earnings for an individual with less than a high school diploma is $973,000. With a diploma it is $1.3 million. With an associate’s degree it rises to $1.7 million. Now watch the jump. The median lifetime earnings for those holding a bachelor’s degree is $2.3 million; for a master’s degree it is $2.7 million; and for a doctoral degree, $3.3 million![ii]

    Now think of high school classmates who could have gone to college but chose not to. Over the course of your lifetimes, you are likely to earn at least $1 million more than they.

    This gap is almost certain to grow as the global economy becomes increasingly knowledge-based. In 1998, the median earnings for women ages 25 to 34 with a bachelor degree or higher were 60-percent higher than women with a high school diploma. In 2008, that gap expanded to 79 percent. A similar ratio exists for men.[iii]

    During recessions, the unemployment rate for those with associate degrees is three percentage points (or about 30 percent) less than for those with only a high school diploma; and approximately five percentage points (or more than 50 percent) lower for those with baccalaureate degrees,[iv] and unemployment is virtually unknown for those with masters or doctoral degrees.

    And the benefits you reap from your degree go well beyond financial rewards.

    You are more likely than non-degreed workers to receive health insurance and pension benefits from employers, and to report higher job satisfaction.[v]

    College-educated people tend to lead healthier lifestyles, are more active citizens, and engage in more educational activities with their children, who are then better prepared for school than other children.[vi]

    And lest you fall prey to those naysayers who question the value of a college degree, the data indicates that these associations most definitely are the result of increased educational attainment, not just of individual characteristics.[vii]

    One more thought. You may encounter someone foolish enough to attempt to denigrate your marvelous new gift by pointing out that it was “Made in Akron.”

    If so, I suggest you take them to a department store or mall and as you encounter the holiday crowds, explain that our economy continues to function, thanks in part to the wisdom of Sandra Pianalto, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Akron Class of 1976.

    Then go into an electronics store and point out the new Samsung 55-inch 8000 Series 3-D television, made possible in part by Dr. Seung-Wook Lee, Samsung’s Vice President of Corporate Strategy, Akron Class of 1992 and 1994. If the TV happens to show a scene from the Fox TV hit “House,” you might mention that Jennifer Danolfo, Class of 2007, helps to produce the show . . . or that the new Fox series “Alcatraz,” which debuts in January, features the post-production work of Scott Sebert, Class of 2006.

    Go to that television, tug on its power cord, and remind your companion that the electricity flowing into the unit comes from FirstEnergy Corporation, which is led by Anthony J. Alexander, president and CEO, and Akron Classes of 1972 and 1975, and someone who also was awarded an honorary doctorate from The University of Akron.

    And once you are back in your car, driving through a quiet residential neighborhood, you may finally add that the security we enjoy in our nation was guaranteed in part by retired Lt. General Paul T. Mikolashek, three-star commander of all allied ground operations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, Akron Class of 1969.

    I hope you now realize that this degree you about to receive is immensely valuable and promises to return dividends throughout your lifetime.

    And I suggest that following this ceremony, you go out with loved ones and friends, and pose for photos with a . . . polymer Santa peering over your shoulder, or . . . a tassel dangling from your mortarboard, or . . . with whatever symbols of joy and celebration you adorn your holidays.

    For in years to come, you will gaze upon those images and realize, yes indeed, the degree you earned from The University of Akron was one of the finest gifts you have ever given yourself.

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere – I salute you, the fall 2011 graduates, together with your families and friends who have helped make this success possible.


    [i] Timberlake, Cotton. Bloomberg.com, Nov. 30, 2011 12:30 PM ET, “Consumers’ Self-Purchasing Bodesell for Holiday, NRF Says,” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-30/consumers-self-purchasing-bodes-well-for-holiday-nrf-says.html?cmpid=yhoo

    [ii] Bialik, Carl. “College Does Pay Off, but It’s No Free Ride,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 19, 2011

    [iii] Baus, Sandy; Ma, Jennifer; Payea, Kathleen. “Education Pays 2010: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society,” College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, Executive Summary, p. 4

    [iv] Baus, Ma, and Payea, Ibid

    [v] Baus, Ma, and Payea, Ibid

    [vi] Baus, Sandy; Ma, Jennifer; Payea, Kathleen. “Education Pays 2010: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society,” College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, Executive Summary, p. 5

    [vii] Baus, Ma and Payea, Ibid

  • Topic Category: Value of Higher Education
  • Tags: gift, value, earnings, holidays, alumni, Oelschlager, Pianalto, Seuong-Wook Lee, Alexander, Mikolashek
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