A Graduation Unlike Any Other

05/07/2015 09:55 am ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Spring ushers in the season of college commencements. These societal rituals -- with their sartorial splendor and lofty speeches -- commemorate the sacrifice of students to improve their minds and sharpen their skills before fully entering the rigors of civil society and their chosen fields. They are unequivocal causes for celebration.

Lamentably, however, today too many college graduates leave campus with heavy debt burdens in addition to their diplomas and gowns. Even worse some fail to obtain the latter while still accumulating the former.

In my 20-plus years of work in higher education, I have attended countless commencement and convocation ceremonies. As president, I have always had a role as speaker, convener, or host. Recently, however, I had the pleasure of being a platform party observer. And it was a ceremony I will not soon forget.

But first, just a bit of background.

Smack dab in the middle of central Kentucky is Madison County. In the Commonwealth of Kentucky and its 120 counties, Madison is relatively modest in size -- 443 square miles -- with a population of fewer than 90,000 people. But it is home to two remarkable institutions.

The one where I have the good fortune to be the 13th president is Eastern Kentucky University, which traces its roots to Central University and its founding by the Presbyterian Church in 1874. Beset by financial struggles in the early 20th century, Central actually merged with Centre College in Danville before becoming a state institution in 1906, focused primarily on its normal school role.

Today, EKU boasts several national and internationally-renown programs, over 16,000 students on six campuses and online, and over 125,000 living alumni. Our tuition and fees are very reasonable -- especially when one considers comparable institutions -- and amount to less than $8,000 per year for Kentucky residents. One iconic feature on campus is a statue of our county's most famous explorer -- the inimitable Daniel Boone -- whose right foot is astonishingly bright thanks to the many students who rub it religiously for good luck during finals week.

Just down the road from our campus is Berea College. I don't think there is any other institution quite like it anywhere. Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionist John Gregg Fee and was the first school in the South to be both racially integrated and coeducational. Currently, it has approximately 1,600 students with an endowment north of $1 billion. And not one student pays tuition.

As the faculty entered the Seabury Center for the ceremony, they were followed by work supervisors (some of whom are faculty as well) because every single student is required to hold down a 10 to 15 hour-a-week job on campus. As freshmen, students are assigned to their places of employment. Thereafter, the onus falls to them to find jobs they would prefer to do. But everyone works and for their labors, each student receives a paycheck and a labor grant. In addition, every student is guaranteed a full-tuition scholarship with the equivalent value of $23,400 per year for four years.

The President of Berea, Dr. Lyle Roelofs, is an extremely affable man, very capable and intelligent, with a smile as broad as the Kentucky River. He has become a good friend and colleague and he was kind enough to invite me to Berea's 143rd Commencement. I felt especially motivated to attend as the speaker for the ceremony and honorary degree recipient was Naomi Judd, an EKU alumna who studied nursing at Eastern many years ago as a single mother of two prodigiously talented daughters.

Dr. Judd gave a motivational and moving speech and even borrowed a students' head gear before delivering her address. This graduating senior had cleverly placed the traditional mortar board on top of a cowboy hat and Ms. Judd wore it proudly as she exhorted the Class of 2015 while roaming the stage with a wireless mic. She was charming and she was memorable.

The most indelible moments for me, however, were as I witnessed each graduate come across the stage, some of whom cried for joy, some carried children, others danced and gestured happily. These scenes of each student were incredibly powerful.

The Berea graduates I observed, regardless of their chosen field of study or discipline, were unshackled with the crushing burden of student debt that threatens to snuff out the dreams and aspirations of so many during this graduation season. 35 percent of Berea graduates earn degrees with zero debt; the rest complete their programs with loans a quarter of the national average.

Like millions of others, I took on debt to pay for all three of my degrees, the last of which was completed in 2011. Happily, the loans I took out to help pay for my third program were all recently retired. But I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Too many undergraduates today will collect a diploma with increasingly bleak job prospects and loan debt in the tens of thousands.

I remain an unabashed proponent of investing in one's future through education as the sine qua non to success in whatever one chooses to pursue. But I also fear the rising costs of tuition and fees will make access to education more and more difficult to average Americans. Thanks to groundbreaking legislation like the Morrill Act in the 19th century and the G.I. Bill in the 20th century, the United States of America created a middle class unlike anything which has ever existed in the history of the world. But this expansive middle class is based on an educated citizenry.

That dream of providing for our children a life which is even better than our own has always been inextricably tied to the hope of accessing education at whatever post-secondary level one chooses: from America's unmatched community and technical college systems, to our regional comprehensive state colleges, to our land grant universities, to our research institutions. Regardless of one's predisposition, there is an option along an extremely broad spectrum of choices. But before one can graduate and walk across a stage to collect the ticket into the world of educated persons, one must FIRST have access.

And that is what places like EKU in a public setting and Berea College in a private venue strive to do: to provide access to the transformative power of education to all those who wish to avail themselves of it. So in this season of black robes and flying mortar boards, let us never forget the immortal words of statesman and writer Benjamin Disraeli: "Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends."