One of the most important days of the year is fast approaching. At Waubonsee Community College, this exciting day takes place May 17, 2012. It’s graduation day or commencement — the day graduates walk across the stage and are recognized for earning their degrees. While this personal accomplishment will stay with our graduates the rest of their lives, the benefit extends far beyond the individual. This occasion, and others like it in the coming weeks at colleges and universities nationwide, is important to our entire country. Without significant numbers of new graduates in a wide variety of disciplines, our country cannot thrive and meet its potential.

The simple fact is if you earn a college degree you’re more likely to be employed and to earn more than your peers without degrees. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2010 unemployment rate for associate degree holders was below the national average at 7 percent. Compare this to a 10.3 percent unemployment rate for those with no degree beyond high school. Those who attain degrees also significantly increase earning potential. Looking at the same statistics, community college graduates bring home $141 more in pay each week compared to high school graduates. Multiply that by a year, and you’re looking at more than $7,000. The personal benefits to earning a degree are clearly tangible.

Local, state and national leaders are also invested in increasing college completion rates because college graduates are needed for many of today’s advanced jobs. Without a strong pool of qualified job applicants, many positions are going unfilled, hurting our global competitiveness. In Illinois, the Complete College America initiative is spearheaded by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon. In her January report, she noted that 24 of every 100 future jobs could go unfilled due to the skills gap that exists in our state. As part of her journey to visit all community colleges in Illinois, she came to Waubonsee last May to serve as our commencement speaker and learn about the college’s Project Graduation initiative, which is designed to increase the number of Waubonsee graduates.

Confirming many of the conclusions found by Lt. Gov. Simon, Waubonsee’s Project Graduation has already made a significant impact. Last year’s graduating class was the largest on record, and we’re expecting a 21 percent increase this year. On May 17, this graduating class will hear motivating and inspirational words from American Association of Community Colleges President and CEO Dr. Walter Bumphus. It is an exciting opportunity to share this special and important day with such a distinguished national educational leader.

To the 1,000 plus Waubonsee students earning your degree this year, as well as the thousands of other new graduates throughout the Fox Valley, I want to commend you for your hard work. Cherish these moments as you share your accomplishment with friends and family. Your journey has not been without challenges, but the outcome is worthwhile and rewarding. You represent our collective futures, and that is why I am so optimistic about our nation’s continued success.