On May 24, 2022, I had the pleasure of presiding over Princeton’s 275th Commencement and my ninth as president. The ceremony capped off a week of joyous celebrations, including the in-person Commencement for the Class of 2020 and the return of Reunions. On a cool spring day in Princeton Stadium, I congratulated our 2022 graduates on their accomplishments and encouraged them to continue persisting in the face of challenges. Here are my remarks. — C.L.E.
In a few minutes, all of you will walk out of this stadium as newly minted graduates of this University. Before you do, however, it is my privilege to say a few words about the path ahead.
That privilege feels even more special than usual this year. It is an honor to speak to the Great undergraduate and graduate Classes of 2022. Earning a Princeton degree is an exceptional achievement in any year, but you have overcome challenges that none of us could have imagined when you began your studies here.
You, your families, and your friends can be very proud of what you have accomplished. And you can be sure that the strength you have demonstrated will serve you well in the years ahead.
Earlier this year, a Princeton alumnus in Atlanta asked me what quality or characteristic I considered the best predictor for success in college and beyond. I began by saying that I was reluctant to generalize across a very diverse student body with a dazzling array of talents. Princeton students succeed in many and inspiring ways, a fact that all of you have vividly confirmed during your time here.
Still, I said to our alum, if I had to name one quality that mattered across the many dimensions of achievement and talent, it would be persistence: the ability and drive to keep going when things get hard. All of us go through difficult times. To achieve our goals, we have to find ways to continue even when—indeed, especially when—obstacles seem insurmountable or endless, and pressing onward feels exhausting, daunting, or just plain dull.
Persistence is, I admit, a rather unglamorous virtue by comparison to, say, genius, creativity, or courage. An old adage, often but perhaps erroneously attributed to the nineteenth century humorist Josh Billings, praises persistence by comparing it to the postage stamp, which achieves success simply by “sticking to one thing until it gets there.”
Modest though it may be, however, persistence is at least as important to achievement, including academic achievement, as are any more celebrated characteristics.
You earned your degrees today in many ways and for many reasons, but not least because you persisted brilliantly throughout your time on this campus and away from it. You persisted not only through a world-altering pandemic, but through problem sets, writing assignments, laboratories, midterms, finals, senior theses, dissertations, and the personal crises and doubts that are an inevitable part of college life and, indeed, of life more generally.
Getting to and crossing the finish line is hard, which is why we celebrate college degrees so enthusiastically. The degree you earn today matters tremendously. And it really is the degree that matters most, far more than the honors or other decorations that go with it. I do not know if this comes as welcome news or bad tidings, but I must tell you that there is surprisingly little correlation between grade point average and success in later life.
But getting a college degree? That correlates with everything from higher incomes to better health to greater civic engagement—and the list goes on.
Persisting through college matters, which is why we celebrate Commencement day with admiration and exuberant joy.
At Princeton, students have taken different paths through the challenges of the pandemic. Some took a year off, some did not. One way or another, however, graduation rates for Princeton students remain sky-high.
We should recognize, however, that is not true everywhere. At college Commencements around the country, there are missing chairs and missing students this year, and there will likely be more missing chairs in the years to come.
Some students left school during the pandemic and have not returned. Some high school students who might have gone to college have made other choices instead. Though the data is incomplete, both problems appear to have a disproportionate effect on students from less advantaged backgrounds and those who attend community colleges and other public, two-year institutions.1
That is a tragedy. A tragedy because, as I said a moment ago, the degree matters. All of us who attend ceremonies like this one, all of us who celebrate students who have earned a college degree, should recognize the urgent need to bring back those who have found the path to a college degree blocked or unpassable.
It is especially damaging when students drop out of college after incurring debt, even if the amount of debt is small. When media outlets cover student debt, they like to focus on the eye-popping loans some students accumulate. In fact, though, most student loan defaults involve students with small debts who leave college without getting a degree.2
If students persist to graduation, their earning power goes up, and they can often pay back even large loans. Without a degree, they see no increase in earning power, and often find no way to pay back even small loans. Half a degree does not get you half the earning power: unfortunately, it gets you almost nothing.
We need policies to help those who have left college. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, for example, has proposed a new “Some College, No Degree” program to assist the more than 700,000 New Jerseyans who left school without finishing. I hope that the legislature will fund the proposal.3
At the federal level, a bipartisan group of senators sponsored legislation, called the “ASPIRE Act,” that would have provided colleges and universities with incentives to improve their graduation rates and to increase their representation of low-income students.4
That bill did not pass; no proposal is perfect. One way or another, however, we need to make sure that talented students from low-income families get the support they need to make it to and through college.
One way or another, we need to add back the chairs missing from graduation ceremonies around the country.
I hope that today and in the week ahead, as you celebrate your degree, you will take time to thank the friends, family members, teachers, mentors, and others who helped you to persist across the finish line. None of us succeed on our own, in normal times or in difficult ones. And, in that spirit, I hope, too, that as all of you pursue quests and adventures beyond this campus, you will help others to persist across the finish line as you have done so remarkably yourselves.
I know that, whatever you do, you will make Princeton proud, and that you will put your talents, creativity, and character to work in ways that we can scarcely imagine today.
All of us on this platform are thrilled to be a part of your celebration. We applaud your persistence, your talent, your achievements, and your aspirations. We send our best wishes as you embark upon the path that lies ahead, and we hope it will bring you back to this campus many times. We look forward to welcoming you when you return, and we say, to the Great Class of 2022, congratulations!
1 See, e.g., Stephanie Saul, “Requests for US College Aid Are Down, with Experts Blaming the Pandemic,” The New York Times (July 26, 2021); Matt Krupnick, “More College Students Are Dropping Out During Covid. It Could Get Worse,” The Guardian (February 10, 2022); The College Board, “College Enrollment and Retention in the Era of Covid” (June 2021).
2 Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos, Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt, p. 121 (Princeton University Press, 2016).