The president of Harvard University spoke to University of Maryland, Baltimore County's graduates Thursday about the growing divide between those with and without college degrees, while praising the school for graduating more minority students in science and tech fields than other colleges.
Since 1990, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust said, the rate at which black and Hispanic students earn bachelor's or higher degrees has declined relative to their white peers.
"Higher education can be a great equalizer in this country, and there is no further intervention as strong or as enduring as a college education for helping individuals and societies to thrive," Faust told 1,400 students and family and friends at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. "But many colleges, most of the colleges, have not figured out how to do as good a job as UMBC at enabling all students to reach their highest potential."
Faust said it was her first commencement address at a university other than Harvard.
UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III trains new college presidents through a program at Harvard and was awarded an honorary degree from the institution.
Hrabowski said students can earn degrees at UMBC without breaking the bank.
"Maryland residents need to know that middle-class students can come to a public institution, get a superb education and go anywhere in the country," Hrabowski said. "When students come to UMBC, we work to give them the kind of support that ensures that their future will be solid. Whether they go to graduate school, medical school or into the workplace, they'll be well prepared."
The university awarded a degree posthumously to Jonathan "Shane" McNeil, a psychology student who died during the school year. His parents accepted the degree on his behalf, and the crowd observed a moment of silence.
Faust highlighted UMBC's first-generation college students, those who worked full and part time and those raising families, saying their road hadn't been easy.
She said the growing gaps between minority students and their white classmates "should concern all of us in higher education and beyond."
"We need to close those gaps and bring degrees within reach for far more students, regardless of race, ethnicity or economic circumstances," she said.
Faust told the graduates that their degrees would help them survive in a challenging economy.
"The economic recovery from the Great Recession has been highly uneven, and those without the ticket that you now hold, a college degree ... these individuals have seen incomes stagnate and in some cases fall back," she said.
But that ticket carries with it responsibility, Faust said.
"Now, as you join this fellowship of college graduates, you have intellectual responsibilities to our society as well," she said. "You have the responsibility to model reason and reasoned debate; to value facts and to insist that they inform our public discourse."