Presidential Commencement in the Desert

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion and debate about President Obama’s decision to speak at graduation festivities at the University of Notre Dame.  But little had been said about yesterday’s presidential commencement address at Arizona State University.  Yes, there was some initial discussion about ASU’s decision not to award Obama the traditional honorary degree (apparently, ASU’s policy is that one is recognized for their full lifetime body of work, and the President of the United States still has to prove himself and still has other career chapters ahead of him), but that’s been about it.  But few are discussing what’s behind the curtain on last night’s address in Tempe.

As to be expected, the President did a fine rhetorical job in the desert.  He used the moment to inspire, urging students to pursue their passions and make a difference.  He made light of the honorary degree scuffle.  And he did what one would expect from a President in what will become the core of a relatively standard graduation address he will deliver two to three times a year, for the next four to eight years.  USA Today has a good article on the graduation here,  The Arizona Republic provides us the local view here.
We expect such speeches to be motivational, and not wake-up calls.  We want to applaud achievements, inspiring graduates to make a difference in their communities, not dwell on the fact that so few of those ASU grads are now leaving campus with actual jobs in hand.  We don’t want to talk about the economic realities around us, particularly with so many people leaving the last four, five, or six years of college with five or sic figures of debt to worry about in a time where job prospects for new college grads are at some of their weakest levels.
But one does have to wonder how Arizona State University was selected as Obama’s only address to a public university this spring, and the first time a sitting president has ever participated in ASU’s commencement ceremony.  The decision is particularly vexing when we look at the Administration’s rhetoric on student achievement and performance, and take a second look at the Grand Canyon State and the Sun Devils in particular.
The general consensus among educators is the eighth grade NAEP reading score is the best harbinger of student success.  It provides a better longitudinal view that the fourth grade scores, and it provides a more complete picture than the scores of 17-year-olds, particularly recognizing that so many students have dropped out of high school before taking those 11th grade NAEP reading exams.  Knowing that the vast majority of ASU students are coming from the state of Arizona, how do Arizonans do on 8th grade NAEP reading?  Only 24 percent of Arizona 8th graders score proficient or better on our Nation’s Report Card when it comes to reading.  That’s good enough to rank 42nd out of 50 states.  Hardly the beacon of college preparatory hope we would want to honor with the merriment of commencement commencing.  
But the numbers are even more startling when one looks at the success of ASU students, at least in terms of their ability to earn that sheepskin in the first place.  We often talk about the high school graduation rates, the need to measure success based on a four-year yardstick (one’s ability to graduate high school four years after starting ninth grade).  We then joke about the five- or six-year plan that many postsecondary students choose to employ during their college years.  Surely, just about anyone can earn that diploma after spending six years in search of 120 credits, right?
Actually, no.  The folks over at Education Trust has spent a lot of time and effort taking a look the postsecondary numbers through their College Results initiative.  They even break down the numbers so one can compare a school like ASU with other peer institutions (as, to be fair, not everyone is competing with Princeton or Stanford).  What did EdTrust find?  In its peer group, Arizona State is the largest institution, in terms of enrollment, yet it has the lowest six-year graduation rate.  Only 56 percent of ASU students graduate six years after enrolling.  Even more disturbing, only 46 percent of minority students end up leaving ASU with that diploma.
When you disaggregate the numbers even further, you see that half of Hispanic students who enroll at ASU graduate within six years.  For African Americans, that number drops to 42 percent.  For Native Americans, an important population in Arizona, the figure is a disappointing 25 percent.  
So when Eduflack looks at these numbers, one has to ask, from a purely spotlight perspective, why ASU and not Louisiana State University (57% grad overall and 51% minority grad), or University of Central Florida (58% and 53%, respectively), or Michigan State (with a 74% overall grad rate and 54% African American and Native American grad rates and 58% Hispanic)?  It is even more puzzling when you see Florida and Michigan, at least, also outperforming Arizona on that important NAEP measure.
I don’t doubt there were good reasons to head to Tempe this week.  Nor do I want to deny the more than half of students who have persevered for the last four to six years and earned their degree from hearing the President and reflecting and rejoicing in their accomplishment.  They earned a college degree, and that should be applauded, regardless of the circumstances around them.
But in this era of economic worry and global competitiveness, this time of student achievement and school innovation, the President missed a golden opportunity to talk about those who were not let into the party.  He missed the chance to talk about the 76 percent of Arizonans who are not provided an equal chance to graduate from high school or attend institutions like Arizona State because they cannot read at a proficient level.  He missed the opportunity to call on the state and the institution to do something about the 44 percent of students, and the 54 percent of minority students, who don’t make it to the final ceremony.  He missed the chance to celebrate those who have achieved, but remind all of those who were left behind and urge us all to redouble our commitment to reducing the pool of close but no cigars.
Earlier this year, President Obama pledged that, by 2020, the United States would have the highest percentage of college graduates on the planet.  We don’t get there when only six in 10 college freshmen are holding a degree six years later.  And we certainly can’t get there when only four in 10 of historically disadvantaged students are earning the honor.
No, we don’t want to use these commencement addresses to bum out the graduates or bring the crowds down.  It should be a time for optimism, recognition, and congratulation.  But such presidential addresses must be delivered in the context of the world around us.  Let Obama applaud the students at Arizona State and Notre Dame.  But let’s have EdSec Duncan and the team on Maryland Avenue point out the miles we have to go on the issue of postsecondary degree attainment.  Use these addresses to issue a call to arms among both our secondary and postsecondary institutions that they can, should, and must do a better job.  
Fifty-six percent grad rate is a starting point, not an end point.  Schools like ASU should be our reclamation projects, nor our exemplars of best practice.  No offense to Arizo
na State, you just get the spotlight because you won the White House lottery this year.  Next year, such concerns can be raised about future institutions.  But when you get the President speaking about hope and opportunity for your graduates, one has to take a close took at those who failed to don the cap and gown, why they weren’t in the stadium last evening, and what that means for ASU, Arizona, and the nation.  
We know our 21st century economy is going to be driven largely by those holding postsecondary credentials.  Seems we need to hold those postsecondary institutions accountable.  After years of taking student tuition and indulging students on the five- or six-year plan, what are they doing to get all students — particularly those from minority, low-income, or first-generation college going families — across the finish line?  What are institutions like ASU doing to help meet the President’s 2020 degree goal?  And what are we doing if they don’t, or can’t, provide real answers to the question?

192 thoughts on “Presidential Commencement in the Desert

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