President Jones, members of the faculty, assorted notables, proud parents and financially indebted graduates. I come before you on this auspicious day to say something about the degree you have just been awarded. You have been told it is not worth the papyrus it is printed on. I am here to tell you it is worth a fortune.
In preparing for this commencement speech, I assembled a file of newspaper stories about the cost of college, the burden of student debt and how much you can expect to earn in your first year after graduation — assuming, of course, that you can even find a job. The numbers are daunting. Unless you are graduating from one of those name-brand elite institutions — Harvard, Yale, etc. — you’re probably not going to make much your first year out. In fact, we now have many examples of community college graduates earning more than those with bachelor’s degrees. In Virginia, the difference can be $20,000 a year.
What’s more, people often come out of school burdened with debt — about $24,810 on average, but an astounding $41,230 in Washington, D.C., where many residents have advanced degrees. This is hardly small change, of course, but aside from Washington, we are talking the price of a new car — without the premium package. This is a debt your average young person gladly takes on without whining to Congress. I add that just to provide some perspective and get you riled up.
The figures concerning salaries and debt are not to be dismissed. But they, too, need some perspective. College, after all, is not solely about earning power — although you are forgiven for not knowing this. College, believe it or not, is about education — and that, boys and girls, is not something you can put a number on. Let me give you a word: anthropology.
This is a word I’m not sure I ever heard in high school. But when I got to college, I had to take a year of it to satisfy a science requirement. I did one semester of physical anthropology and one of cultural — and about 40 years of both ever since. I became enthralled with the study of evolution, with paleontology, with my pal Australopithecus africanus and with the “sexing” and “racing” of skulls. Give me a good skull and to this day I can give you the sex and the race of the dearly deceased. I was CSI Cohen before there was CSI anything.
I still keep up with anthropology. I try to stay somewhat current in sociology and psychology, my major and minor before I lost my way and took up journalism — and I do these things not for credit but for fun. College taught me how to have fun with knowledge. It enriched my life in ways that cannot be quantified. I came out of college with a debt, but my real debt was to my professors.
When I wanted to become a writer, I found teachers who showed me how. One of them, John Tebbel, a former newspaperman turned author, took me aside. He praised. He criticized. This is how it’s done, kid. The man changed my life.
See, this is the part of college no one talks about anymore. It’s all about numbers — what it costs and what you can earn. It’s all about a financial investment — how much in and how much out, as if value is always about money. But there’s value in the discovery of fine art or cinema or literature or . . . anthropology. And — very important — you will get an overview of the world, not just your little area but all the rest. This will make you a better citizen, which is nice, and will give you greater control of your life, which is also nice.
About a month ago, a hostess at a dinner party asked the table what college had done for them. Absolutely nothing, one person instantly responded. I braced for a cascade of negativity, but to my surprise it never came. Guest after guest praised their education and how it had made them a richer, happier person. I was gratified.
I know what you’re thinking: It’s fine for you to say, Cohen. You’ve got yours. You’re not poor and scratching for a job. True enough. But you will find truth in the cliche that money cannot buy happiness. This has been the case for thousands of years — or, as I like to put it, since Australopithecus africanus.
You can Google that.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.