HAMPTON, Va. – President Barack Obama, addressing graduates at historically black Hampton University on Sunday, said that it is the responsibility of all Americans to offer every child the type of education that will make them competitive in an economy in which just a high school diploma is no longer enough.
Obama told the nearly 1,100 graduates assembled in the university's sun-splashed Armstrong Stadium that they have the added responsibility of being role models and mentors in their communities.
Clad in a blue gown, Obama recalled the university's humble beginning in September 1861 as a school for escaped slaves who sought asylum after fleeing nearby plantations in the Confederate South. Obama said the founders recognized that, with the right education, such barriers as inequality would not persist for long.
"They recognized, as Frederick Douglass once put it, that 'education means emancipation.' They recognized that education is how America and its people might fulfill our promise," said Obama, the first black U.S. president.
Drawing parallels to current challenges, Obama noted that Hampton's graduates are leaving school as the economy rebounds from its worst downturn since the 1930s, and with the U.S. at war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama said education can help them manage the uncertainties of a 21st century economy.
For much of the last century, a high school diploma "was a ticket to a solid middle-class life," he said. But no more, as jobs today often require at least a bachelor's degree — or higher. To that end, Obama is pouring tens of billions of dollars into K-12 and higher education with an eye on raising standards and building the future workforce.
"The good news is, all of you are ahead of the curve," Obama told the graduates. "All those checks you wrote to Hampton will pay off." But too many others, he said, including disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics, are unprepared and are outperformed by their white classmates in the U.S. and around the world.
"All of us have a responsibility, as Americans, to change this, to offer every single child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our knowledge economy. That is our obligation as a nation," the president said.
Obama said the graduates also must be role models and mentors in their communities. And they must pass the sense of an education's value on to their children, as well as the sense of personal responsibility, self-respect and the "intrinsic sense of excellence that made it possible for you to be here today," he said.
Obama's speech was one in a series by top administration officials at historically black colleges and universities this year. In all, 11 of the nation's more than 100 "HBCUs" will have an administration official speak at graduation.
First lady Michelle Obama was the commencement speaker Saturday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which began as the only state-supported institution of higher education for blacks in Arkansas.
Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett was scheduled to speak at Morgan State University's commencement ceremony on May 15, followed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at Morehouse College and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice at Spelman College, both on May 16.
Earlier this year, Obama named Hampton University President William R. Harvey to be chairman of a presidential advisory board on historically black colleges and universities.
Obama also received an honorary doctor of laws degree. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he quipped that the honorary degree "is much less expensive than my last law degree."
Obama has two graduation speeches left to deliver this year: at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., on May 22, and at Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Mich., on June 10.
On the Net:
Hampton University: http://www.hamptonu.edu
White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov