The Myth of the American Dream

Part of the traditional American Dream is that anyone, even children from low income families, can work their way through college, get a degree and be upwardly mobile.

However, some recent research suggests that this is no longer the case – a full 50% of American university students from disadvantaged backgrounds drop out of college, and the main reason is because financial constraints means they cannot afford to pay the bills.

Sara Goldrick-Rab conducted a longitudinal study of 3,000 disadvantaged young adults attending various universities in the state of Wisconsin, USA (commenced in 2008), and some of her main findings include:

  • 50% of students from low-income households drop out of college and thus end up with college degree.
  • The experience of university is, for many poor students, quite grim – 24% of students in her study had problems with basic food security, and 13% were homeless.
  • They controlled for the amount of effort students put into their studies – and found that students did not drop out because of lack of effort, but the main reason was literally not being able to pay the bills.
  • Less than 20% of the sample managed to complete a degree within five years.

Goldrick-Rab also argues that there are clear ‘structural’ reasons why poor students cannot afford college:

  • Financial assistance (in the form of the Pell grant) is available to those from households which earn less than $30K a year, but this only covers a third of the cost of college (it used to cover the full amount, but it no longer does)
  • Job opportunities are insufficient to make up the difference – there are too few jobs, employers offer too few hours (they limit hours to avoid having to pay certain in-work benefits) and wages are too low – thus half of all poor students simply can’t earn enough to pay the rent or for food.

Goldrick-Rab concludes that low-income American families are being sold a ‘myth’ – the ‘myth of the American Dream that it is possible to be upwardly mobile by working your way through college – for 50% of poor students attempting to do so will result in no degree and a lot of debt.  They thus have an expectation which is not going to be met.

However, many families and students feel that it is there fault if they fail to complete, and feel a sense of guilt and shame if they do so.

Goldrick-Rab hopes that her research will act as a wakeup call, alerting people to the statistical facts that you only have a 50-50 chance of getting a degree if you’re poor.

She rounds off by suggesting a policy solution – to make the first two years of college free. Interestingly (which dates the research!) she talks hopefully about Obama and Hilary Clinton putting such policies into practice, but given that we’ve ended up with a Trump administration, it’s unlikely that poor kids are going to get access to fairer opportunities any time soon.

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