Margaret Spellings

Commencement Speech at Walden University - Jan. 23, 2010

Margaret Spellings
January 23, 2010— Dallas, Texas
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Good morning and congratulations. I’m honored to share this moment with you and your families … with everyone here in Dallas and with all those who aren’t here but worked equally hard.

I am especially glad to be back home in Texas. You know the people who run Walden are smart because even though their offices are in Minneapolis and Baltimore, they chose to have January’s commencement in Dallas – where it’s about 30 degrees warmer.

Regardless of the weather, I love attending college commencements because I get to make up for a mistake I made many years ago – not going to my own.

A lot of people who have other obligations in their lives – like work or family – tend to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, not stopping to appreciate how far they’ve come or how their perspective has changed.

So, it’s right and righteous that we stop today and celebrate what you’ve done … how far you’ve come. If you’re from Texas, you know all about Texas braggadocio. Today’s the day for it. Take the spotlight. Let out a cheer. You deserve it.

The work you’ve put into earning your degree – long nights after putting the kids to bed … weekends spent buried in books … practical experience in the field – all this work is about to pay off.

And if you’ve missed “American Idol” the last few seasons, let me know and I’ll get you caught up.

I want to join Chairwoman Paula Singer, President Jonathan Kaplan, and Walden’s faculty and academic leadership in congratulating all of today’s graduates – the first graduating class of Walden’s 40th anniversary year.

And graduates, let’s pause for a moment and thank the faculty members at Walden who helped make this day possible for you.

You all are pioneers, embracing learning and new ways to succeed in education. Walden’s model is so successful – reaching more than 60,000 people – because it is designed to meet students where they are.

The focus here isn’t on fitting your life into a class schedule. The focus is on making the degree program work for you.

It’s hard to believe Walden has been at this for 40 years. With email, Internet, and new video and audio technology, online education is blurring the differences with traditional classroom learning.

But in the 1970s…Before the PC was even invented … when using the phone meant being connected to the wall … when video conferences were something you’d only see on Star Trek … to envision a school that could connect students across the country through classes that fit into a working person’s schedule – that took foresight.

Walden’s founders, Bernie and Rita Turner, were visionaries. I had the pleasure of meeting them a few weeks ago at a speech I gave in Naples, Florida. They’re still all about education. It’s a passion for them, as it is for many of us. And their passion drove them to break down the barriers to obtaining a degree.

Thanks to the Turner’s vision, you’re advancing your careers, improving your job prospects, exploring your own passions, and setting a wonderful example for your children, many of whom are also students like you.

And our society has more people with the ability to think, to strategize, to solve challenges, to chart new paths that improve lives.

You’ve had a rigorous education because Walden ensures that academic learning produces real-life benefits. This school asks the toughest question: Is our program working? Here at Walden, the answers are resoundingly positive. When I was Secretary of Education I worked to get more schools to do likewise, and look at their customers. But, I mostly just got blank stares.

A recent study of reading teachers in Tacoma, Washington, who earned their Master’s degrees at Walden found that their students outperformed students of similar teachers in reading fluency. The fact that Walden is doing research tracking their teachers, and comparing their effectiveness is only further proof that you all pay attention to the bottom line.

And surveys of employers show that they are very pleased with the knowledge and skills Walden graduates bring to the workplace. Most importantly for you – they would hire another Walden graduate in a heartbeat.

By asking the tough questions, Walden ensures that its programs serve its students and graduates. We need more higher education institutions to embrace this kind of accountability … more colleges to focus on customer satisfaction, responding to the needs of the workforce and the marketplace … to back up their claims of greatness with specific, student-oriented results.

During my term as Education Secretary, I created a commission to study higher education and it made some tough findings. We all know U.S. higher education has a stellar reputation. But my commission found that we’re resting on our laurels. Colleges and universities are losing ground when it comes to accessibility, affordability, and accountability.

To put it simply: Many colleges and universities today are wedded to old ways of thinking. Old models of delivering education that often don’t make students’ needs a priority. We need universities to go where they have not yet gone to develop more student-oriented approaches.

Compare that outlook with the attitude of most businesses. One of my favorite companies is Starbucks. It’s gotten me through some tough days – as I’m sure it has for you.

Starbucks didn’t come to dominate the world by requiring everybody to sit in their stores and drink a Venti House Blend. They opened drive-throughs and went to supermarkets. They introduced whole new concepts. I’m sure there’s a baby somewhere whose first word was “Frappuccino.” Most importantly, they listened to their customers.

I’m not saying higher education is like a cup of coffee – although they both give you a boost in life. But colleges and universities need to learn some important lessons about serving customers, adapting to changing needs, and finding new ways to deliver a timeless product.

College today isn’t about tweed jackets and frat parties and sleeping through lectures. Today’s students are more diverse. They’re at different stages of life – not just a bunch of 19 year olds cruising through on their parents’ dime. You have responsibilities – kids and work and community engagements – that make it hard to get to class at the same time every day or every week.

So who’s listening to these students? Who’s responding to their needs?

Increasingly it’s schools like Walden.

This comes as a shock to some old-guard education policymakers, but the private sector is often leading the way in delivering the rigorous college experience that today’s students want and need.

They’re more accessible because students can engage in their studies around the clock and from anywhere in the world.

They’re more affordable because students aren’t paying for all the bells and whistles – the climbing wall, the luxurious new dorm, or the gold-plated cafeteria. They’re paying for an education.

And they’re more accountable because they have customers – students like you – who care about getting good value.

I don’t need to tell you this, but sometimes it’s nice to get some reinforcement: You made the right decision.

Starting and finishing the degree or certificate you’re receiving today was a smart move. Higher education has really gone from a “nice-to-have” to a “must have.” It is the single best tool for improving your life and the lives of your families. I know those of you who are educators share that perspective because you see education changing the lives of your own students. That’s why you chose this most noble profession.

This degree is a credential that no one can ever take away from you – something that’s reassuring in tough economic times. No matter what else happens, your degree can’t get repossessed, it won’t be taxed, and it only expires when you do.

President Obama has called on all Americans to attain at least a year of higher education. He issued the challenge because he knows that higher education is vital to our success as a nation, and to the individual success of every American.

You have answered the call. So what’s in store for you now?

For many, more money.

But also, for most, new opportunities, whether in a new field or in a career you’ve spent years cultivating.

For some, this degree could one day make the difference between working for a boss and being the boss.

For others, today’s ceremony is a milestone, but not the end of the journey. You may already be working toward your next degree – pursuing an intellectual passion to build your life around.

For all of you, this degree is a source of pride. Whether we can now call you doctor, or you’re earning your first degree, you will walk out of this ceremony with the knowledge that you have challenged yourself, you have achieved success by meeting a goal, and you are prepared to seize the opportunities that come your way and continue to make your mark on the world.

One of the qualities that set Walden students apart is a desire to serve others, to improve communities, to tackle the toughest challenges facing society.

Walden alumni are distinguishing themselves in many fields and in many parts of the world…

People like Dr. David Boyd, a past recipient of Walden’s Outstanding Alumni Award, who took his training in management and decision sciences to the Department of Homeland Security. There, he worked with emergency responders across the country to improve the way police, firefighters, and EMTs communicate during emergencies. His efforts will literally save lives.

And Laura Ybarra, a Walden nursing graduate who’s now working on her Master of Public Health degree. Adding some complication? She’s living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, working as a public nurse for a Native American community. Laura has said she feels called to her work, called to help others feel cared for and listened to. And I’ll bet most of you feel the same way.

We need that spirit of calling – of putting your whole heart and soul into active citizenship, engagement with the world, and innovation. Our country and our world have a host of challenges – education, health care, the environment, poverty – waiting for your ideas and your energy in action.

This month’s earthquake in Haiti reminded us that new challenges arise all the time – and that we do have the compassion and the capacity to help.

For those of you who are teachers and educators, thank you for offering children your vision, your caring, and your commitment. We share a passion for helping every child reach his or her potential. And our work has a lot to do with the future of our country.

I’ve been involved in education policy for a quarter-century, and one thing I’ve learned is that policymakers can only do so much. Real progress comes from the daily interactions teachers have with their students.

Next to mom or dad, you are the caring adult they see most in their lives. Parents want their child to have every opportunity in life. You help make that possible through your work in the classroom.

So, to all of today’s graduates, embarking on a new career, or bringing new knowledge and skills to an existing career, know that you’re ready.

You’re ready to teach a child to read.

You’re ready to help a patient get well.

You’re ready to provide counseling that can change a life.

You’re ready to design the next wave of energy-efficient products.

You’re ready to lead a team, to chart a course for a business, or to oversee a project to its successful conclusion.

You are ready.

I’m sure the people celebrating with you today will confirm that you are always looking for new challenges to inspire and motivate you. You’re lifelong learners. And you will be lifelong leaders, as well.

All of us here today, and your peers, will be watching with pride to see the contributions you make.

The degree is yours. Celebrate today. Whoop it up. And then make your mark on the world.

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