Thank you all for your warm welcome and congratulations to the Tulsa Class of 2011. I'm honored to be here with you, your professors, and the Tulsa community as you begin your college experience.
By now, you've learned your way around campus, discovered late-night eating at the "QT", maybe even cracked a book or two. You've started an incredible adventure and the next few years will most surely shape and define you.
Here at TU, you're at one of the finest institutes in the country. You've come to a place where education is valued as the means to a full and better life. And you have a president who understands the international marketplace and the importance of cultivating a global perspective.
Since returning from Asia, I understand Tulsa has already forged several new partnerships with China. Partnerships that will strengthen faculty exchanges, customize Chinese language programs, and develop dual degree programs in emerging science and engineering fields.
Whether it's learning Chinese or studying overseas, I encourage you to pursue the global opportunities you have here. Before you know it, you'll be ringing the Kendall bell, so live each day with purpose and take some risks.
America's colleges and universities have been the testing grounds for generations of citizens and leaders. They've been the birthplaces of great inventions. The incubators of great ideas. And the promoters of free thought and civic engagement.
Your presence here today means you've been given a gift. A chance to gain fresh perspective and new skills. It's a gift that millions of people hunger for around the world... and here in our own country. Not so long ago, one could live a comfortable life and get a good job without going to college. But, in today's competitive economy, a college education is becoming more and more essential.
Our world is changing faster than ever, shrinking distances and barriers between people. Thanks to globalization, no matter where I travel, from Chile to Russia, my Starbucks soy misto tastes pretty much the same!
Technological advances that have improved the quality of life and opened new doors of opportunity have also redefined the skills you will all need to compete and succeed.
In this country, ninety percent of the fastest-growing jobs, from computer software engineering to physical therapy, require postsecondary education or training. Yet 60 percent of Americans have no postsecondary credentials at all.
At a time when more Americans need a degree, it's becoming more difficult to get one. For low-income and minority students it can be nearly impossible.
Consider a recent study that showed by age 24, 75% of students from the top-income bracket have earned a degree. At the same age, less than nine percent of low-income students have earned a degree.
It's hard to believe only 17% of our high school freshmen are getting bachelor's degrees within ten years—and when you break down the data by race or poverty, the situation is much more grim.
For example, only ten percent of Latinos earn bachelor's degrees by age 29. As one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in our country this anemic attainment rate has serious implications for our future.
To remain the world's innovation leader we can't continue to leave so much talent and potential untapped. That's why I've made strengthening opportunities for higher education a priority.
- When thousands of low-income and minority students can't access the system.
- When we spend more than a billion dollars a year on remedial classes for college freshman.
- When the financial burden of skyrocketing tuition forces parents to choose between paying for college and their own retirement.
Then, it's time we figure out as a nation how we are going to address these very serious problems. More than two years ago, I launched the Spellings Commission to look at these issues. Since that time a vigorous debate has taken root all across the country.
We don't have all the answers yet, but we're making significant progress on some of our most important goals. Such as:
- Increasing financial aid for low-income students. In fact, the President proposed the largest Pell Grant increase in more than 30 years and will soon sign into law an $11 billion increase in Pell funding.
- In addition, we're also working to strengthen high schools so more students are prepared for college,
- Simplify the financial aid form, and
- Inject more transparency into the system.
There's no doubt that our system is the finest in the world, but others are gaining ground... and fast! When President Upham and I were in Asia, we saw first hand how nations are rapidly adapting their education systems to ensure their workers come out on top.
Yet, we have an advantage. One of the hallmarks of the many thousands of colleges and universities in America is a dynamic and innovative culture, a commitment to constantly evolve and grow.
We must harness that character to drive the necessary improvements to ensure our system remains the gold standard in education excellence... and that many, many more people have access to it.
TU has been a leader on these issues... including your efforts to develop a university-wide strategy on measuring student learning. And, I look forward to your continued support as we press on with this critical work.
In a new era of global competition, it's up to all of us—institutions, government, parents, and students—to ensure higher education remains the path to the American dream. And, that more Americans have the same opportunity you have today.
Now, before I close, I wanted to share a little bit of advice with all the students here... some of which I've learned from my own college daughter. It occurred to me that going off to college and going to work in Washington have a lot in common. For example:
- It's hard to leave the comforts of home... D.C. is NOT Texas!
- Parking is a nightmare...
- You have to learn to juggle many priorities—school, family, work... the season premiere of Grey's Anatomy...
- It can take some time to get your footing...
And this is something that's helped me... [Hold Up Cereal Bags]
These may look like used cereal bag liners... and they are... but they also have special meaning to me.
My Aunt Lily celebrated her 80th birthday this year in Weyburn, Saskatchewan—about two and a half hours north of Minnesota. Aunt Lily grew up during the Depression. She saves everything... including cereal box liners. These are her Ziploc bags. She was an environmentalist before there even was such a thing!
They make me think of home and a very simple truth—Don't Forget Where You Came From. The next four years will be a whirlwind filled with new ideas and new people. You will face difficult decisions, and it may be hard sometimes to see where you're headed.
But if you stay true to who you are and remember your roots, you will navigate just fine. And if you can learn how to do that here... it's a lesson that will serve you for the rest of your life.
So, don't forget where you come from, call your parents... and not just when you need money... invest in your friendships, maybe save a few cereal bag liners... and make the most of these next four years.
Education is a gift... and you are blessed to be here.
Thank you and good luck!