"Don't do it for security or status, prestige, money, or, for crying out loud, don't do it for somebody else," he said. "Do it for love. Because if you love what you do, you'll always do what you love."
Joel, who never graduated high school but said he traveled "the college of the road," estimated he has received five or six honorary degrees. That includes a new doctorate of fine arts from Syracuse.
"I'm not here to give you a big song and dance. Maybe a song," Joel said, and then he led the audience in a tune based on "Down in New Orleans."
In part, the lyrics said, "Come on everybody, take a trip with me, up to Onondaga County, that's where I'll be. Oh, you're going to be a lawyer or an engineer, you can even study music in the college here. With any luck, you'll get a Ph.D. at Syracuse University."
The crowd answered with thunderous applause.
Last fall, Joel gave $320,000 to the university's college of visual and performing arts for music fellowships.