We don’t celebrate football players who stop at the 10-yard line or marathon runners who call it quits at the 25-mile mark. We cheer when a player scores a touchdown or a runner crosses the finish line because the athlete has reached the intended goal. The equivalent accomplishment for college students is earning a degree or certificate and using that credential to open doors to opportunity.

It’s no surprise that those who earn degrees are ahead of their counterparts who take just a few college classes or only complete high school. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is 26 percent higher for those with some college but no degree compared to holders of an associate degree. Individuals in the workforce fare worse without a degree, earning 8 percent less with some college but no degree compared to associate degree graduates. People with just a high school diploma are at the highest risk for low earning potential and unemployment. While any education is valuable and reaps tangible and intangible benefits, earning a college degree or certificate is essential to job security and making a livable wage. This is why Waubonsee Community College is focused on creating a culture of completion.

In line with President Barack Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, Waubonsee and community colleges nationwide are removing barriers to degree and certificate completion. This means encouraging students to finish what they start and providing the support both in and out of the classroom to achieve this universal goal. Even before the national initiative began, Waubonsee established our own “Project Graduation” to reach not just our current and future students but also alumni who may have left college just a few credits shy of a marketable credential.

The central elements of Waubonsee’s Project Graduation include the evaluation of our curriculum, the implementation of enhanced college services, a review of college processes, enacting a comprehensive communication plan, focusing on student retention, and expanding access for all. We’re already making great strides on nearly every front. I expect next year will bring even greater success for our students as Waubonsee enters into the 2011-2012 Foundations of Excellence® National Select Cohort program. This program is a nationally recognized process to improve the first-year student experience. Our new campuses in Aurora and Plano, both of which offer full associate degrees and comprehensive student support, will also make it easier for all members of our community to improve their lives through college completion.

Every May, college students all over the country cross their own finish line — graduating and receiving their diplomas. Walking across the stage in front of peers, faculty, and proud family and friends, these new graduates know they’ve accomplished something special that no one can ever take away. This year, Waubonsee has 864 graduate candidates, up nearly 7 percent from last year. I know their families will cheer as if they’ve just scored a touchdown — because the rewards of completing a degree will last them a lifetime.