The 18-year old student who enrolls in college in the fall and graduates 45 months later is no longer the norm. There are many paths to a degree, and it is a good thing that the world of higher education is recognizing--and accommodating--individuals that progress at different timetables.
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Last month I presided over winter graduation. December commencement is relatively new to the academic calendar. Most universities used to hold ceremonies only in the spring, as the official climax of the academic year. But the tremendous growth over the past quarter century of so-called "nontraditional" degree programs for working adults fueled a demand for commencement following the fall term. Students in these programs can complete their requirements at any time throughout the year, so they don't want to wait several months for their opportunity to walk across the stage.

Texas Lutheran does not have a separate evening degree program, however December commencement still makes sense. I presented diplomas to 82 new alumni who completed all degree requirements in August or December. Asking these students to return to campus in May would have been anti-climactic, and most would have missed out on a well-deserved family celebration.

Even for traditional, residential campuses like TLU, exceptions to the eight-semester experience are becoming more common. Several of our recent December graduates have worked hard to complete early, thereby saving tuition and getting a jump on the job market. In previous years, those students would have enjoyed a relaxed final semester, but many today planned to finish early to minimize costs. More often, however, a December graduate needs a bit more time to complete -- sometimes the result of a change in major, but more likely he or she encountered personal or financial obstacles. TLU also works with a number of students who are working to support families and are unable to attend full-time four consecutive years.

December commencement is admittedly a more modest affair than its May counterpart. We do our best, but the indoor ceremony can't match the visual impact of being outdoors on the campus quad, in full spring bloom, the full orchestra playing in front of an overflowing crowd. December commencement is not the climax to the academic year, and it falls during the height of the Christmas season. Graduating in December is sort of like having a birthday on December 26.

But for the graduates and their families, winter commencement is just as joyous and often more satisfying. The 18-year old student who enrolls in college in the fall and graduates 45 months later is no longer the norm. There are many paths to a degree, and it is a good thing that the world of higher education is recognizing -- and accommodating -- individuals that progress at different timetables. Many of the December grads have inspiring stories of overcoming adversity. Their education is richer for the life lessons that came with the academic credits. They learned that life does not necessarily unfold neatly in eight-semester increments. Success is seldom linear: stuff happens. They know the truth of "God laughs at those who plan." In my admittedly unscientific, subjective observations, family members at December commencement are even more proud.

This also was a special commencement for me. It was approximately the 20th separate graduation that I have presided over, but the first in which I directly had a hand in the result. Ten of the 82 graduates had to pass the microeconomics class I taught this semester. I was proud that each of them finished strong on the final exam earlier that week and relieved that I didn't have to deal with any borderline cases! After shaking hands with thousands of graduates over the past decade, it was a kick to be able to deliver diplomas to "my own" students.

Congratulations and Godspeed to the Texas Lutheran University (December) Class of 2014!

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