Scenes from Commencement 2015

by Nathan Arbor

1. On the morning of Commencement, I meet up with a colleague whom I see around campus often enough during the year, but with whom I seem to talk at length only when we get together to march at graduation. I ask where her talented daughter has decided to go to college next year, remembering from last year’s conversation that the two schools the daughter preferred were Berkeley and NYU. No, said my colleague, she didn’t get into Berkeley, and NYU is $65K next year, so the daughter will be going elsewhere.

2. Several years ago, Brown University decided to cut costs by completing Commencement on the Sunday before Memorial Day rather than celebrating the university graduation ceremonies over the entire three-day weekend. But this has done nothing to change the East Side “dumpster diving” celebration, on the trash night delayed until Monday. On Tuesday, one routinely heard young clerks, cashiers and barristas all over Providence sharing the stories of the treasures secured the night before in the Brown neighborhood. At a cafe called Seven Stars, one young woman showed my wife and I the pair of leather boots she found and everyone on line was quite impressed. Her male counterpart, behind the counter, said, “I just can’t imagine having so much money that I could throw out something like that.” He sounded more wistful than bitter, and we all tried to shrug optimistically.

3. On the morning after Commencement I read that Bernie Sanders will make the cost of higher education a major issue in his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. He has a plan to pay for students to attend public universities tuition-free, citing several European countries as models for such an idea. But I was struck by how much of his plan is taken up, necessarily I’m sad to say, with rules and restrictions to keep the universities from using the expenditures to raise prices and expand administration — as if the universities can’t be relied on to support the goals of the program anymore than would a bailed-out bank or a run-of-the-mill corporation.

4. In between the university graduation ceremony and the receptions in the afternoon, I watched Ken Burns’ wonderful commencement speech on YouTube (given to the graduates of Washington University in St. Louis). Later, I told a colleague about the speech and said that I was particularly thrilled to hear someone quoting literature for a change. The colleague smiled and said that he attended commencement at Emerson College last week, where his niece was graduating, and that the clergyman who delivered the benediction asked God to “Bless the Brand.”

5. Current Federal law prohibits student debt to be discharged through bankruptcy and yesterday I was asked to attend a meeting in New York to discuss how the law might be modified equitably. There is a a large body of statistics on student debt, and when you look below the crazy average student debt number (more than $40K) the picture becomes even crazier (because the debt isn’t evenly distributed regionally, demographically, etc.). Like the new credit card statements that are required to tell you how many years it would take you to pay off your bill if you make only minimum payments, we are producing graduates in significant numbers who are confronting the probability that they will never be able to pay off their debt no matter how long they live and work. Period. So, while I can remember when the university’s in loco parentis role had mostly to do with dorm life and student advising, I suppose it must now include helping to change the bankruptcy law.

To the Class of 2015: Godspeed indeed!

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