Commencement Address, Anoka-Ramsey Community College
It really is an honor to be here with all of you today. And I'd like to thank President Stumpf for inviting me to share some thoughts with you - and for all the great work she does to make this school a shining example of what a great college can be.
First things first: Congratulations. To you, and also to all the parents who are here.
As someone who's been proud to watch two kids graduate from college, I can tell you that they are every bit as proud as you are, and maybe just a little emotional, to boot. Please hug them a lot today.
Some of you are the first in your family to go to college. And as someone whose parents didn't go to college, either, I can tell you that your parents are having a hard time holding it together. So please hug them extra hard.
Some of you are parents yourselves, balancing your education with a job or two so you can improve your own opportunities while raising a family. And if you are, and your kids are here, I hope your kids hug you extra hard after this ceremony - because you are Batman-level superheroes.
Some of you came here from difficult economic circumstances - from families that value education but can't necessarily afford its skyrocketing cost - but you've persisted, even knowing that you'll graduate with debt, because you're courageous enough to bet on yourself.
Some of you came here after high school as a stepping stone towards a longer-term educational goal. Some of you came here in the middle of your careers for a certificate that will allow you to advance or even change directions entirely.
But all of you have achieved something great. And so, first and foremost: Congratulations. Give yourselves a huge round of applause.
Okay. Good applause. Well-deserved. What you've done here is a personal achievement you should be proud of.
But your success is also an example, and I want to say a few words about what the country could learn from you.
Lots and lots of American families are really struggling right now. We've had a terrible recession, and we all know someone who's been looking for work for a year and a half with no luck, someone who's been forced to choose between buying gas and buying groceries, someone who's been struggling to keep their small business from going under.
And that's why Topic Number One in this country has been figuring out a way to bounce back. Sure, there are signs that the economy is finally beginning to recover. But I'm not talking about economic statistics. I'm talking about rebuilding our economic security - about restoring the feeling that if you work hard and play by the rules, you'll be able to carve out a comfortable life for your family and give your kids better opportunities.
Resilience is something many of you know about first-hand. And, historically, our country has also been pretty darn good at it.
As tough as things are right now, it's important to remember that we've been through hard times before.
Today, our national debt is 93 percent of our gross domestic product. That's scary. But after World War II, our debt was 121 percent of our gross domestic product. To be fair, we had something to show for it: We had won World War II.
But the point is that, not too long ago, our resilience was tested. And we bounced back from those difficult years and experienced three decades of incredible growth, building the strongest economy in the history of the world.
And what's more, we built an economy in which economic security wasn't just something rich people had, but something that was available to an increasing number of Americans. The road from poverty to the middle class was much easier to travel than it is today.
Between 1947 and 1977, wages for the top fifth of workers grew by 99 percent, and wages for those in the bottom fifth rose by 116 percent. I know that's hard to believe. The wages of the bottom fifth grew more than the wages of the top fifth. Really. That happened.
We bounced back from World War II to build a country in which middle class families could enjoy real economic security, and even poor families had a chance to pull themselves up into the middle class.
That's the kind of bounce-back we're looking for today. That's why I talk about investing in infrastructure - like we did when we built 40,000 miles of highways back in the 1950s. That's why I talk about investing in innovation - like we did when we won the space race.
But let's not forget that, when it comes to bouncing back from tough times, there's no trampoline quite like education.
There's a statistic used by economists to measure how educated a country is - the percentage of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a college degree.
If you look at this statistic back in 1976 - so, people born between 1942 and 1951 - two in five Americans had a college education. That's not everyone, but it led the world. Canada was a relatively close second. Everyone else was competing for a distant third. We had the strongest economy in the world because we were the most educated country in the world.
Our national commitment to education included things like the G.I. Bill (which helped my mother-in-law, the widow of a World War II vet, go to college) and Pell Grants, which helped my wife Franni and her three sisters go to college.
But it also included a common understanding that an educated population was in our national interest.
I was born in 1951. And in 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik. Suddenly, the Soviets had nuclear weapons and were ahead of us in space. We were terrified.
I was six when Sputnik was launched. My brother was 11. As I mentioned earlier, neither of our parents had gone to college - in fact, my father never graduated from high school. But they understood that our generation had been challenged, and that education was the key to meeting that challenge. So our parents sat us down in the living room in St. Louis Park and said: "You boys are going to study math and science to beat the Soviets."
Now, I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a six-year-old.
But we were obedient sons. And so Owen and I studied math and science, and we enjoyed it. And, wouldn't you know it, my parents were right. We beat the Soviets. Owen and I beat the Soviets. You're welcome. And we became the first in our family to go to college.
Fast-forward to 2011, however, and look at today's 25-to-34-year-olds - people born between 1977 and 1986. You'll see that 41 percent of Americans in that age bracket have a degree, right around where we were 35 years ago.
But over the course of those 35 years, Canada has passed us by. And so has South Korea. And so has Japan. And so have Norway, and New Zealand, and the U.K., and Australia, and France. In fact, we've fallen from first all the way down to 16th.
People look back at those days after World War II, and remember a time when you graduated from high school and then either went to college or went to work. But the options for those who don't go to college are few and dwindling.
By the year 2018, 70 percent of jobs in Minnesota will require some kind of post-secondary degree or other credential like you're getting today. But, today, only 40 percent of the Minnesotans who will have to fill those jobs have that degree or credential. That's not a lot of time to make up a huge gap.
Giving up on our national commitment to education doesn't just short-change our kids. It endangers our businesses' ability to compete - and the future of our economy.
Community colleges are a big part of the answer, putting the key to a brighter economic future in the hands of more Minnesotans. That's why I was proud to fight for a federal grant to develop a curriculum here at Anoka-Ramsey to help students become part of our state's medical device industry.
That opportunity should be available to everyone. That's why I was proud to fight for Pell Grants so that the doors to college could be open to more students. And it's why I am proud to fight to keep student loan interest rates down, so that boulder of debt that some of you are walking out that door with can be at least a little lighter.
Education is every bit as important to our country as it was to each of you when you made the decision to come here. But in St. Paul and in Washington, investing in education can be a tough sell at a time when our budget is already stretched to the max. And that's a tough problem for policymakers to sort out.
But you guys shouldn't have much sympathy for that predicament - because you didn't skate to the degrees you're getting today. You fought for them. You didn't shy away from doing hard things. You didn't make excuses, and you didn't let anyone else make excuses for you.
And that's why, while I know it's customary for a commencement speaker to offer you advice, the truth is that I need your help more than you need mine.
Our nation faces extraordinary challenges. And I'm working hard in the Senate to do what I can to help.
But the smart policies we passed after World War II were only part of what helped our nation to bounce back. It was our common commitment that we all shared to educating our kids and investing in our own potential that made it work.
And the renewed sense of common purpose we need to address our challenges today won't come from a piece of legislation. It'll come from the example each of you sets in your community.
Listening to Bob earlier, it was easy to imagine him succeeding in the career he's chosen. But it was even easier to imagine his family and his neighbors drawing strength and inspiration from the hard work he put into getting there, and the generosity with which he has given back to his community.
Wherever you go from here, you'll take with you not only the skills you've learned from your classes, but also the courage and dedication that enabled you to make it through.
Don't underestimate the difference you can make by sharing your passion for learning with those struggling to find their path. Don't underestimate how inspiring your commitment to doing hard things can be to those tempted to give in to cynicism. Don't underestimate how badly this country needs the resilience you've shown in getting to this day.
An America with a common understanding of the importance of education, an America with the confidence to invest in its own potential, an America that doesn't make excuses when it faces tough problems - that's an America that can bounce back from anything.
And that's the America you can help to build.
So I don't just want to congratulate you on your dedication and your resilience. I want to thank you for it. And I want to urge you to maintain those things - to keep inspiring us, keep making us proud, and keep leading by your example.
Thank you - and congratulations. And remember to hug your families.