Higher education a key to the freedom to make your own choices

Like colleges and universities across our country, we just concluded our commencement ceremonies at Eastern Kentucky University, conferring degrees upon a record number of graduates.

As I looked out upon the sea of our newest alumni, I couldn’t help but think of the words of George Plimpton, offered to the Class of 1978 at Hobart and William Smith Colleges: “We sense that you are all much brighter than we are. You speak a language that is almost foreign to us. You can read digital printouts ... And what is particularly disturbing is that you all come out at the same time — May or June — hordes with your dark graduation cloaks darkening the earth.”

Even in 2018, the vestiges of the Old World are never more readily seen than in the tradition-rich ceremonies of higher education with our Oxford-influenced mortar boards, dark robes, sheepskins and hoods of various colors and shapes.

Notwithstanding these nods to the past, there is nothing more exhilarating than shaking the hand of each graduate and knowing that behind the awarding of every single diploma is a story: a story of sacrifices made so that opportunities could be afforded and chances given to pursue dreams heretofore unattainable. George Washington Carver called education “the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”

Freedom is such a beautiful word and fraught with so much meaning.

The completed degree signifies freedom from course work or study groups or exams or research papers. But it also signifies freedom to choose one’s own path, freedom from ignorance and misconceptions and fake news, and the freedom to come to one’s own decisions and draw one’s own conclusions.

In America today, higher education is under a tremendous amount of scrutiny. What is it that we offer to society? Are we worth it? What is the return on investment? Is the cost of a college degree defensible?

A friend recently shared perspectives of three university presidents when asked: What is the best way to measure the worth of a college degree? Based on their experiences and backgrounds, they had different responses.

Michael Drake is president of The Ohio State University and a physician. His response was in line with what one might associate with those in the field of medicine: longer life expectancy and increased quality of life.

Michael Schill is president of the University of Oregon and former dean of the University of Chicago Law School. He’s also the first in his family to graduate from college. His best measurement is social mobility.

Mark Schlissel is president of the University of Michigan. He, too, is a medical doctor, but he chose to summarize the best measurement of a degree thus: “At its best, higher education gives us the freedom to make decisions based on our values, desires, human talents and willingness to work hard. We are free to choose our own path. Education takes freedom beyond its status as a legal right and elevates it into a lifetime of choices. It’s the trajectory of those lives, changed by the opportunities available through a college education, that I am most interested in measuring.”

As long as we can make American higher education — still the envy of the world — affordable and accessible to all, nothing else provides the portal to more opportunity. College graduates are only limited by their own expectations, the extent to which they are willing to invest in themselves and the effort they are willing to expend in pursuit of goals.

Michael T. Benson, president and professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University, is author of “College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy,” to be released in November by University Press of Kentucky.