LACONIA – Commencement is always such an exciting time for students, parents, faculty and staff. It is an event full of smiles, hugs and celebration. As a college president, it’s my favorite day of the year. Lakes Region Community College held our commencement ceremonies on May 18 and I had the pleasure to address the audience and talk about their accomplishments and the doors that open up for individuals with a college education.

It’s also a time of reflection on the hard work and perseverance of these students – from young adults to mid-life career changers who are preparing for new professional adventures. Each graduate has a unique story and pathway that brought them to LRCC, but they all share that common goal of working to better prepare themselves to meet goals they’ve set for their lives.

In my remarks, I reminded the graduates and their families of the value of a college degree and the doors that a degree will open. Our graduates joined about 46% of the U.S. population who has earned an associate degree. While over 90% of the US population has achieved a high school diploma or its equivalent, less than half of the adult population in the country has a post-secondary degree.

From an economic prosperity perspective, completion of a college degree is, in fact, one of the most important factors in moving families out of poverty. Studies show that 90% of low-income students who earn a college degree move out of poverty and into the middle class or higher. Evidence tells us that by completing an associate degree in our state, you will earn 32% more in average weekly wages and you are 68% less likely to be unemployed when compared to someone with only a high school diploma.

Beyond the economics of earning a degree, those of us in higher education also believe that our work is about contributing to the social good. As educators, we help expose students to the world around us in preparation for adulthood and civic participation. We help them learn the critical thinking skills that are required to navigate our complex societies. We help them identify and pursue a career, not just a job.

Despite these benefits, there are those who question whether a college degree is worth the cost. We regularly hear stories about students graduating with $100,000 or more in debt. We hear about people delaying marriage or buying a house because of this debt. And we also hear of the younger generation’s aversion to carrying debt. These are valid concerns and that is one of the reasons why community college administrators continue to work so hard toward ensuring college is accessible and affordable. Yet, college should not only be viewed as an expense. Instead, it is a long-term investment in yourself.

Like any investment, everyone needs to be smart about it and consider why they are making it and what the alternatives are. For example, there are big differences in earnings potential associated with certain professions that require a four-year degree. Thus, when thinking about which college to select and how much selecting that institution will require you to take out in loans, it is key to consider whether your expected earnings will enable to you to pay off that investment. Choosing a pathway to any degree requires taking these types of factors into consideration.

If the ultimate goal is to earn a four-year degree and the reality of carrying debt is daunting, starting at a community college should be a top consideration. I strongly believe that our students can access the same quality education while reducing the cost over the time it takes to earn an associate degree and then have the option of transferring those credits and pursuing a four-year degree.

Another advantage community colleges offer is career exploration. If you are unsure of what you might want to do for a career, community colleges are the best place to explore options because we focus on combining in-class learning with experiential opportunities tied to a wide range of career paths. There currently is a high demand for graduates in technical fields such as health care, advanced manufacturing and automotive servicing. The community colleges in New Hampshire graduate more nurses than any other higher education institution in the state. Many of our graduates in technical degrees are earning over $50K a year with a two-year degree. Our liberal arts graduates have clear transfer pathways to four-year institutions.

Last, the word “community” in community college is another key differentiator. Our graduates fill critical roles within the community. Consider the LRCC nursing graduates who will be caring for you and your family when you go to your next doctor’s visit. The firefighter or EMT responding to an emergency is likely an LRCC grad. The mechanic who diagnosed that check-engine problem in your car through a computer diagnosis and solved your problem may have earned an LRCC degree. Perhaps a teacher in your child’s school developed the foundation for their career by studying at LRCC. College is an investment in yourself. Attending LRCC is also an investment in the growth and prosperity of YOUR community.

Larissa Baía is the president of Lakes Region Community College, a fully accredited, comprehensive community college in the Lakes Region that serves over 1,200 students annually.

For more information about Lakes Region Community College, visit www.lrcc.edu.

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