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THIS year’s college graduation speeches have been a bit glum, reflecting the glum times. Given the state of the world and the U.S. economy, an apt graduation message might be Bob Hope’s of many years ago, later picked up by Bill Cosby: Don’t go.
President Obama, speaking at Ohio State University this week, tried for uplift. “ I dare you, Class of 2013, to do better,” he said. “I dare you to dream bigger.” But Mr. Obama conceded the U.S. political system is not working very well.
The President said the system gets consumed by “small things.” He lamented that a minority in Congress can find excuses to oppose measures that most Americans support, such as modest gun control.
In Toledo, Owens Community College’s spring commencement speaker was Brad Higgs. He talked about how an education, and religion, had lifted him out of a life of homelessness and crime. Mr. Higgs served seven years in prison. He graduated from Owens with a 3.8 (out of 4.0) grade-point average.
Mr. Higgs provides a reminder that it’s not all about politics. Individuals, their mentors, and their friends are changing, and sometimes saving, lives outside of Washington and outside the limelight, every day.
Education has long been considered the pathway out of poverty and hopelessness in America. For Mr. Higgs, it has been. He chose community college over going back to jail. And this society, by making that possible, invested in a productive citizen rather than a professional criminal.
Higher education still improves opportunity for those who are afforded it. The New York Times reports that college graduates have survived the recession far better than people with only a high-school degree. The jobless rate for graduates is 3.9 percent. It is 14.9 percent for college-age young people who are not in school.
It is true that many college graduates are working below their qualifications. But they are working. Contrast them with the young people who never get to college, or worse, never finish high school. They are living a kind of economic apartheid.
About 54 percent of African Americans graduate from high school. For white and Asian students, it’s 75 percent.
Most of the 2.3 million inmates in U.S. prisons and jails are people of color and high-school dropouts. Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander observes: “More African-American men are in prison, or jail, on probation, or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”
The alternative? College. Ask Mr. Higgs.