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Kim Everett, Ph.D., Managing Director

Spring is sometimes slow to come to Illinois, but once it does, it is always a beautiful thing. 

Many find spring to be a moment to stop and pay attention to the ways nature moves through its cycles and brings forth new life.  Those of us working on and with college campuses also take this time to recognize and celebrate moving into new phases on this journey. In the Spring, we help the newest students among us think of the ways they will welcome the next batch of new students as resident assistants, orientation leaders, or peer mentors. Spring is the season of awards ceremonies recognizing student champions and student leaders for their demonstrated commitment to the community.  And lastly, we celebrate our grads—the ones who have achieved their goal and are preparing to take their learning into the world.  

With the fervor of getting students through barriers and the frenzy of planning commencement ceremonies, we don’t always stop and consider the monumental nature of this accomplishment.  Earning a college degree not only changes the life of the graduate but also changes the trajectories of families and communities and propels our state and nation forward in many important ways.  So today, your ILEA family wants to stop and recognize what you all make more possible with the work you do each day to ensure more historically-underserved students realize and enjoy this accomplishment. This year, ILEA colleges and universities will graduate an estimated 39,600 students. Let’s take a moment to unpack what that really means.  

Of the jobs added since the last recession, 95% have required college credentials. (source).  Furthermore, workers with a bachelor’s degree make an average of 80% more than those with no more than a high school diploma (source). According to American Community Survey, a high school graduate earns $25,000 less per year on average compared to workers with bachelor’s degrees, and are more than twice as likely to be unemployed.  Black and Latinx bachelor’s degree graduates, in particular, make about 50-60% more than their respective counterparts with only a high school diploma (source, pg 21). Black college graduates are less than half as likely to be unemployed as those with a high school diploma—that’s 2.9% unemployment rate compared to 6.7%, respectively. On a similar note, only 2.9% of Latinx college graduates are unemployed, compared to 3.9% of those with a high school diploma.

As impressive as those individual gains may be, let’s think about what it means for families and communities to have more degree holders among them. Children of those with Bachelor’s degrees are more likely to be involved in educational activities and are 12% more likely to have been taken to the library within the past month than those with only a high school diploma (source). Not surprisingly, a child from a Black (36%) or Latinx (45%) family with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree is about three times more likely to attend college themselves (source).  Moving beyond the nuclear family, we find that a college education leads to a higher probability of being civically engaged, as 42% of those with a Bachelors (source) engage in unpaid volunteer work in comparison to only 19% of people with the highest level of educational attainment being a high school diploma. 

One does not even need to know a college graduate to reap the benefits of an increased number of degree holders in our society.  A population with credentials of value benefits us all.  

The employment rate for those with BA degrees is 83% and 69% for those with a high school diploma. (source). Those with a BA are more likely to receive employment with retirement plans and health insurance (Source) and consequently less likely to use social benefits like Medicaid, SNAP, free-and-reduced price lunch program, freeing those resources for others who need them (Source). 

College graduates, in fact, are paying into our safety-net programs at higher rates with a lifetime contribution of $381,000 more in taxes than they receive in social benefits, compared to those with only their high school diploma who, over a lifetime, contribute roughly $26,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits(source).

While we pause today to celebrate all of these things, there is still work to do as disparities across multiple dimensions of identity remain (source). As we, as an ILEA family, work to close degree completion inequity, we are reminded that our new grads may also experience inequity in the workplace. Black men with a bachelor’s degree make $15,000 less than white men with the same degree level (source, pg 21) and Black women with a bachelor’s degree make $8,000 less than white women with the same degree level.  Similarly, Latinx women with a bachelor’s degree make $6,300 less than white women with the same degree level and Latinx men with a bachelor’s degree make $10,400 less than white men with the same degree level.  

A population with credentials of value benefits us all.  

The road to equitable outcomes for Black, Latinx, first-generation students, and students from families with financial need is long and winding, but earning a degree and celebrating graduation is a major milestone and a turning point. The class of 2022 will be the first to enjoy an in-person celebration since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, making the occasion especially sweet and we cannot let that be a footnote in this college experience.  We must celebrate at every opportunity and make some noise so that others will be motivated to follow.  

As we celebrate this Spring’s graduates, we will continue to mobilize on behalf of those to come by:

  • Paying close attention to and advocating for institutional, local, state, and federal policy that will make college more affordable, making persistence to graduation more feasible for more students, 
  • paying attention to what happens to your grads once they leave your campuses; and 
  • keeping connected with them in meaningful ways—even going back to get those students who have stopped out or never felt as if they had the opportunity.