What is a great college?

Posted: May 4, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Eduardo Padrón, one of the most impressive educators in the U.S., was kind enough to include me among a group of university leaders who spoke at the five different commencement ceremonies of Miami Dade College this past Saturday.  To make things even better, I got to share the stage with Vice President Joe Biden and receive an honorary degree along with him (I guess that makes us classmates!).

The press quickly zeroed in on the Vice President’s references to immigration (the photo is from the U.S. News site). But the context of his remarks was a bit broader.  He referenced a conversation he had with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore in which he, Biden, described the “secret sauce” of American progress as a combination of (1) a lack of reverence for orthodoxy and (2) a constant influx of immigrants.  As I have written here before, I believe this theory rings true and Miami Dade College is a perfect example.

Miami Dade College is considered to be America’s largest public institution of higher education (15,000 students graduated this year and total enrollment is well above 150,000).  It is also perhaps the most diverse.  It graduates the largest number of African Americans and Hispanics, and the majority of its students are the first generation in their families to go to college.  Many were born to immigrants or are immigrants themselves.  My colleague Bob Templin, president of another great American college, Northern Virginia Community College (my commencement address there last year is available here), has referred to universities as “the Ellis Island” of the 21st century.  Spend a morning at NOVA or at Miami Dade and you will see how right he is.

When it was my turn to speak I couldn’t help but point out to the Vice President that he was sitting between two university leaders (Dr. Padrón and myself) who were both born outside of the United States and who are both the product of public higher education.  In what other country in the world, I asked, would you find two of the largest institutions of higher education led by immigrants?

I told students they should be very proud for two reasons. First because they just made the best investment in their lives. Beware the pundits who like to question the value of a college degree, because they most likely owe their own careers to the college education they were likely to receive themselves!

Second, they should be very proud of their alma mater.  I often think we have our scales wrong.  We shouldn’t measure how great a university is by how exclusive it is, by how much it spends to educate one student or by how well educated students already are by the time they get admitted.  We should measure a great university by how many lives it manages to change for the better with the resources it has, by how much opportunity it creates and how well prepared their graduates are regardless of their beginnings.  By that measure, Miami Dade College could well be one of the greatest colleges in America.

Thank you President Padrón and your entire faculty and administration for your passion for education and your dedication to your students.  And big kudos to the Board of Trustees (this photo was taken as we patiently awaited the arrival of Air Force Two), which almost in its entirety participates in each of the commencement ceremonies taking place the same day.  I was inspired and moved by their commitment to higher education.

 

 

 

Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu

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