For at least 4,000 Americans, the most important ceremony of the day probably won’t be the royal wedding. The graduates of Miami Dade College’s North and West campuses have some pomp and circumstance of their own to celebrate: commencement, complete with inspiring words from President Obama.
The president will address the graduates and their guests at the James L. Knight International Center in downtown Miami on Friday evening, and he will receive his first honorary associate of science degree, according to a college spokesman.
As a community college – and America’s largest institution of higher education, with about 170,000 students – Miami Dade is a logical platform for a president who sees expansion of higher education as central to the long-term strength of the economy.
The venue strikes some as a savvy political choice as well.
As in real estate, choosing sites for presidential speeches is partly a matter of “location, location, location,” says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “A state like Florida is hardly unimportant in terms of a president who chooses to run for reelection.”
As president, Mr. Obama has given seven commencement addresses so far, and he will give three this season, including Friday night’s speech.
On May 18, he’ll speak at the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. (Typically, presidents give a commencement address at one of the service academies.) And he’ll speak to whichever high school graduating class wins the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, a contest in which the public can watch short videos online and vote for the favorite.
Among Obama’s audience Friday night are likely to be a lot of supporters. Miami Dade’s student body is about 60 percent Hispanic and 20 percent African-American, two groups that are currently much more likely to vote for Obama in 2012 than for a Republican opponent. A poll by the Pew Research Center in March found that 92 percent of blacks would vote to reelect Obama, along with 66 percent of Hispanics.
Among another group well represented at the college – Americans with incomes less than $30,000 a year – 54 percent said they’d vote for Obama.
With his approval rating running at only about 47 percent as of early April, Obama welcomes any chance to highlight reasons to be optimistic about the economy – and the college-degree holders who can make it hum.
One of Obama’s goals is to make the US No. 1 in the world again in the proportion of college graduates by 2020. To help with that, community colleges are tasked with producing 5 million new graduates in that time frame.
It’s significant “to have the president of the United States speaking at the commencement of Miami Dade because it’s so representative of the diversity and growing stature of these [community] colleges,” says Katherine Boswell, executive director of the Community College Policy Center, a national group that works in partnership with Iowa State University. “Miami Dade has always been on the cutting edge.”
Community colleges have long had a mission of accessibility and affordability. In March, Miami Dade took that a step further, announcing a scholarship to cover two years of tuition for students graduating from high school this spring with a B average or above in Miami-Dade County.
Typically community colleges grant two-year associate’s degrees, along with work-related training certificates. But in the past decade, some of them have added select four-year bachelor’s degrees.
“We offer bachelor’s degrees that get people to work,” says Juan Mendieta, Miami Dade’s director of communications. Whether it’s in nursing, engineering, or public-safety management, “we feel it’s an expansion of our community college mission, providing the four-year degree to populations that have been traditionally underserved.”
This isn’t the first contact the administration has had with Miami Dade. Last fall, Obama tapped its president, Eduardo Padrón, to lead the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. The executive order noted that Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in America, yet only 12 percent of Hispanic adults in the US hold bachelor’s degrees.
Community college leaders are disappointed that, because of political compromises in recent years, Obama had to scale back his goal from $12 billion to $2 billion in funding for a community college initiative over the next four years, says Ms. Boswell. But the White House did host a community college summit in the fall, and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is a community college professor and advocate. Overall, the administration been a strong supporter, Boswell says, and attention from this and any White House is most welcome.
“We could always tell when President Clinton mentioned community colleges, because all the community college-[related] websites would get besieged by inquiries,” she says. “The scuttlebutt was that Clinton was sensitive to polls, and when they would poll the American people, they had very good feelings about community colleges. Since then it has only increased.... Politicians are recognizing that community colleges are representative of the American dream.”
For the students who are on the verge of fulfilling their dream of a college diploma in Miami, “it’s a graduation they’ll remember for life,” says Mr. Mendieta of Miami Dade. “We’ve had presidents from both sides of the aisle.... Regardless of which president is speaking, they see it as a tremendous honor.”