My understanding of ‘The American Dream’, to the extent that I have one, is this: The ability to provide a more prosperous, more secure life for one’s children than one has enjoyed for oneself. And the keys to the American Dream, in my opinion, are hard work and education. Now…setting aside the former—one could write volumes on how hard work alone is irrelevant in an economic game already rigged in favor of the wealthy—education was once our society’s great equalizer. With decent, free education through the age of 18 and a merit-based system of colleges that almost anyone could attend and many could afford, the United States once had a powerful engine of cross-generational prosperity. Sadly this is no longer the case.
The New York Times notes that in the 25 years since the early eighties, college tuition costs have risen over 400% while family incomes have risen only 147%, in inflation adjusted dollars. So in order to send their children to a four-year public university, many middle-class families must take on a crushing debt burden. Combine this with a system of grants and scholarships that provide proportionally more money to the already affluent, and you envision the end of post K-12 education for the majority of Americans. Not that it matters anyway. In many industries, especially more lucrative areas such as finance and consulting, students that graduate from any university not in the top 15 in the nation, are ignored, basically unemployable.
I also note with considerable irony that I was able to get both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees (in the early 80s, of course) without incurring any debt. In the case of the former, I worked throughout my undergraduate career, splitting my college costs about 60/40 with my parents. In the case of the latter, my employer paid my tuition, and I continued to work while obtaining my degree. But, had I attempted that today, I would leave the same university I attended with almost $60,000 in debt, covering only the smallest fraction of my costs by working…and that’s only if I could get in. Today, that university’s admission standards are so high (due to the huge crush of applicants, both foreign and domestic) that my own application would have been rejected.
All these factors lead to an inescapable fact… Today’s older workers are more educated than the workers of the generations that follow them, and this trend is not likely to reverse itself. A combination of un-affordable education, educational elitism, and post-graduate lack of opportunity, has killed the American Dream. In fact, we may be many decades past its death.