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Local Column

Akst: So long and good luck, graduates

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Many still consider Shakespeare among the greatest writers in history, and for good reason.

Take the above quote from “Romeo and Juliet.” Five words. Five words that express the profound paradox of loving someone and letting them go.

I’ve been stringing words together my whole career, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never string five together that pack that much wallop. But I’ll keep trying.

Back to loving and letting go. There’s a lot of that going around this week.

Today and Saturday at Northern Illinois University, we’ll say goodbye to hundreds of students who will graduate and go on to (or go back to) the lives that await them.

Graduating students will don caps and gowns, march to “Pomp and Circumstance,” listen to speeches (some great, some … well-intentioned), and then party. It’s pretty much the same ceremony everywhere, but the ritual is important.

No, we don’t love all the departing students. It would be ridiculous to say we did.

But while they were our students, we – faculty, staff, administrators, police … the list goes on – had an enormous responsibility to take care of them as best we could. We also were responsible for teaching them as much as we could, and for showing them how to think critically and discover ideas we haven’t thought of.

I think and hope we did a pretty good job.

These days, the value of a college degree (at NIU and elsewhere) is tied strongly to career success. It’s just my own bias, but I think the larger value of a degree is about learning about the wider world and how to be a relevant part of it.

These are difficult times for postsecondary education in America. College degrees are expensive (about $23,000 a year for the 2013-14 year at an in-state, public college, according to the College Board), students have a large amount of debt (an average of more than $29,000 in 2012, according to the Project on Student Debt report from the Institute for College Access & Success), and many are questioning the overall value of a degree.

Regardless, was the experience worth it for graduates?

Economically, the answer seems to be yes. A report this year from the Pew Research Center, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” said that “not only are college graduates more professionally successful than their peers with less education,” but that the “disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era.”

Intellectually and culturally, the answer also seems to be yes. The same Pew report said that the so-called millennial generation (ages 25 to 32) believe overwhelmingly (90 percent) that earning a college degree is a worthwhile pursuit.

But if I were giving any of the commencement speeches, I would say that it’s impossible to put a dollar value on learning. Some would say that’s trite, but I believe it.

Best of luck and good fortune, graduates. It was a privilege working with you.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter

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