On Friday, May 8, President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at a small powerhouse of a community college, Lake Area Technical Institute, in tiny Watertown, South Dakota. The president opened with jokes about how when the school’s president, Michael Cartney, told his staff that President Obama would be coming to give the address, the staff didn’t believe him.
But Obama then went on to list what makes the school so extraordinary: its graduation rate, which is three times that of the national average for community colleges; within six months, 98% of the school’s graduates are either employed or continuing their education; the average Lake Area graduate who enters the workforce earns nearly 50% more than other new hires in the region. The president also described the Aspen Prize, since 2011 an annual award for excellence, as “basically the Oscars for great community colleges”; and noted that “only two community colleges in the country made the top 10 every year . . . and one of them is Lake Area Tech.”
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, community colleges provide open access to postsecondary education. In other words, if your grades are uninspiring and no other school will accept you; or you have used up all your financial aid and are now ready for a fresh start, you can enroll at a local community college (costs are much lower than at four-year schools). Of course, community colleges are also known for providing work skills training that prepares students directly for a job, as the president noted in his commencement speech.
The president closed with a quote from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a South Dakota native from the town of Wallace: “The road to freedom,” he said, “here and everywhere on earth, begins in the classroom.”