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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Graduations: Dull, but exciting

I think we can all agree that graduations are generally pretty boring.

Occasionally there’s a decent speaker, but there’s no getting around the fact that a long list of names must be read, and a big stack of degrees handed out. This process will ultimately turn even the most interesting graduation into a long slog. Just thinking about sitting through a graduation makes me feel sleepy.

But when my friend Bruce invited me to attend his commencement at Hudson Valley Community College, I responded as if he’d offered to treat me to a trip to Europe. Of course I wanted to go to his commencement. In fact, I was honored to be invited!

I’ve always taken my own graduations for granted.

It was never really in doubt that I would graduate from high school and attend college.

My parents are college graduates, as are most of my relatives. And I was fascinated by the idea of college from an early age. My parents brought me to one of their college reunions when I was in elementary school, and I loved roaming around the campus and participating in organized group activities with the other kids who were there.

Also, college seemed cool: a place where you could live with your friends and learn interesting things. When high school seemed especially bleak, I spent my study halls in the library, reading the Fiske Guide to Colleges.

Almost all of my friends went to college after graduating from high school, and many of them went to small, private liberal arts schools. I also went to a small, private liberal arts school, and I assumed this experience was the norm.

Well, it isn’t.

Most Americans don’t go to small private liberal arts colleges.

Or any college at all.

According to a 2009 report on educational attainment from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 28 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree. The Northeast is the best educated region in the country, but just 32 percent of the area’s residents have bachelor’s degrees. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with some kind of post-secondary degree was 39.3 percent in 2010.

To my private liberal arts school friends, these numbers often come as a shock. College-educated people tend to hang out with other college-educated people, which leads them to assume that most Americans have been to college. I speak from experience: If you had asked me to guess the percentage of Americans with a college degree when I was younger, and had yet to write a bunch of articles on the subject, I probably would have said between 50 percent and 60 percent.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the need to increase the number of college graduates in the U.S., and ensure that American doesn’t lose its competitive edge.

The Obama administration has set a goal of raising the percentage of degree holders between the ages of 25 and 34 to 60 percent by the end of the decade. In 2011, the president spoke of the need to “make sure we’ve got a world-class education system for everybody” during a speech at the University of Texas.

I think college is great, and that if people want to go, they should be able to.

But for many people, particularly the poor and low-income, there are a lot of barriers. College costs money, and although many schools have good financial aid programs, teenagers from homes where nobody has ever been to college are likely unaware of them. As college costs rise, students are taking on higher debt loads to finance their education, putting their financial stability at risk before they’ve even entered the workforce. And although research suggests that college graduates will earn more money over the course of their lifetimes, a recent survey showed that 40 percent of new college graduates are underemployed or need more training to get on a career track. Occasionally I give a small amount of money to my alma mater, and I always direct it to financial aid.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by the limited vision politicians seem to have when discussing higher education. They seem to think that college is some kind of magical solution to the country’s economic and social problems, and that if we all just had bachelor’s degrees, life would be great.

But I think we all know people who are not suited to traditional four-year degree programs, and could benefit from other options, such as vocational programs and apprenticeships.

On the whole, I’m still a pretty big advocate for college.

The other night I caught up with a friend in New Hampshire who is trying to make the case to his boss that he should earn more money. “Did you ever finish your college degree?” I asked, because the last time I talked to him he was very close, and seemed to think he would be done within the year. But he had not finished, despite vowing to do so. There were reasons, of course — there always are. Initially he had dropped out of his degree program to help support his mother and siblings when his father got sick; now he was being asked to take more classes because so much time had elapsed.

I understand where my friend is coming from, but still: It would be easier for him to argue for a raise if he could point to a nice, new bachelor’s degree. College isn’t everything, but it’s something.

As I suspected, Bruce’s HVCC commencement was a test of endurance.

But I was glad I went.

It isn’t easy to quit your job in your late 40s and go back to school for a new career, which is what Bruce did, and when his name was called, his daughter and I erupted in cheers. “He worked hard for this,” his mother said. He wasn’t the only one: More than 2,000 people graduated from Hudson Valley Community College last weekend. Sitting among their families and friends, you couldn’t help but feel proud.

Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at

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