Every May, millions of Americans file into gymnasiums, auditoriums, or outdoor venues to participate in college commencement ceremonies. Degrees are conferred in front of friends and family, advancing the potential of so many individuals and adding incalculable value to the nation's future.
Community colleges account for at least one million of those degrees annually. While that number by itself is impressive, what is truly special about community colleges is that they provide opportunities for countless students who would otherwise have few options: low-income students and many others whose paths in life have been difficult.
I should know--I am proud to have been one of those students. Growing up in Western Ukraine, the opportunities available to me were extremely limited. Not only were well-paying, professional jobs out of reach, at times simple comforts that others may consider commonplace were things I could only dream about. That's why I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to come to America and find a second home at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Normandale gave me a way forward. It was affordable, local, and allowed me to demonstrate my ability to succeed at the postsecondary level. The courses were challenging and the faculty and staff provided excellent guidance. As I neared graduation, I learned that I had received an Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provided me with the support I needed to be successful at one of the world's most selective institutions, Cornell University.
A community college student moving on to an elite institution is not as uncommon a story as one might think. Sure, most students who finish with an associate's degree often begin their careers in a trade or technical field. But we can also be found in the halls of many prestigious public and private universities, from Stanford to Harvard and everywhere in between.
By 2025, the U.S. will need 23 million additional college degree holders than the nation's colleges and universities can currently produce. Community college students are essential to close that gap.
The resources that are put in place now could make up that difference, especially by expanding access to community college. Earlier this year, President Obama proposed free community college for all students; he was modeling his proposal after Tennessee, which was the first state in the nation to actually do so. Such programs will be expensive, but the return on investment will be exponential.
And what about the new talent necessary to earn those degrees? You don't need to look as far as Ukraine because America already has it within its own borders. Yet this talent is foolishly overlooked. In poor urban and rural school districts across the country, low-income, high-achieving students are living in isolation, unsure about how to get to the next level. In fact, 22 percent of the most gifted students from low-income backgrounds don't even apply to college.
A conscious effort should be made to raise the profile of these students and provide them with the guidance and financial resources to get them as far as their natural abilities can take them.
I certainly couldn't have made it this far on my own, which is why supporting community college is such a personal issue for me.
My graduation day from Cornell is almost here. But I'm not done yet.
I've been accepted to the University of Oxford to pursue a master's degree in Comparative Social Policy, and the Cooke Foundation will fund my studies to receive my graduate degree.
Eventually, I aspire to earn a PhD and hope to someday work for an international organization that promotes social mobility around the globe. I have witnessed the experiences of poor in the U.S. and Ukraine, and while the differences are great, America can do much, much more to help young people like me escape poverty and fulfill their promise.