Graduation should be a happy occasion. But over the last few years, soaring student-loan debt and dwindling job prospects have cast growing clouds over college commencement ceremonies.

That gloomy mood isn’t just a shame.

It’s an overreaction. Lest Americans graduating from college this spring feel too cruelly victimized by unlucky timing, they should realize that they are far from the first class to receive degrees during eras of harrowing uncertainty — economic and otherwise.

They should also realize that while the dividends of getting a college degree ideally include an enhanced — and immediate? — opportunity to make a good living, education has always been, in the purest sense, its own reward.

So is the satisfaction of earning that degree.

Many young people today take that achievement for granted, an inevitable response to the remarkable rise in the number of college-educated Americans over the last half century.

Yet older Americans, many of whom never had the privilege of getting college degrees, know better. They still take well-placed pride in seeing their children, grandchildren and great granchildren acquire higher academic credentials than they did.

As for the pressing practical problems of where to live, work, attend grad schools and find the money to pay off those student loans, past generations long ago learned that time has a way of resolving such concerns.

Anyway, as the word “commencement” conveys, graduation isn’t really an end for those getting their degrees from The Citadel and Charleston Southern today, the College of Charleston on May 12, and other institutions of higher learning across the land.

It’s a beginning. So rather than dwell on the negatives facing so many in the classes of 2012, focus instead on celebrating their scholarly accomplishments. Congratulate them for getting through college — or high school, technical school, grad school, law school, medical school or any other institution of education.

Focus, too, on the perpetual benefits that come through the continuing pursuit of knowledge — and understanding.