Can Higher Education Help Save the American Dream?

In 1970, ninety-two percent (92%) of thirty year-olds earned more than their parents had earned at the same age1.  Today, it is closer to fifty percent (50%)1.  Regardless of your politics, most people would agree that American’s views on the American Dream had a significant impact on the recent Presidential Election.  According to a Gallup Survey taken just before the election, over 50% of Americans felt that economic conditions “were getting worse”.2

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What is the role of Higher Education in fostering economic mobility?  How much of that responsibility should lie with the institution, the state, or the federal government.  Various “free tuition” programs proposed at both the state and federal level are put forth by politicians as an effective means of increasing economic mobility.  Where does providing opportunities for economic mobility rate comparatively to other priorities of Higher Education including research, teaching, and community service? 

Higher Education does have a history of stimulating economic mobility.  In his book, “Over Here”, Edward Humes describes how the GI Bill transformed the American Dream by providing educational opportunities to the 16 million men and women who served in World War II.  Rather than falling into a post-war depression as was the case after World War I, the GI Bill helped re-make the American economy and led to a long period of economic expansion. 

Although the times have changed, many still feel Higher Education has a central role in revitalizing the American Dream.  In fact, some colleges and university seem to be having more success than others in empowering economic mobility in their students.  The Equality of Opportunity Project, a group of economic and sociology researchers who use big data to learn where the American Dream is thriving, recently completed a study on the role of Higher Education in intergenerational mobility. 

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The impressive results embodied in the Top 10 are cause for optimism.  The City of University system is particularly noteworthy with 3 schools in the top 10 and 6 more in the top 10 percent.  It would seem they are doing an admirable job of fulfilling their “commitment to academic excellence and to the provision of equal access and opportunity for students, faculty and staff from all ethnic and racial groups and from both sexes.”    Still, many challenges persist.  Public funding of higher education has taken a major hit since the Great Recession.  According to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, adjusting for inflation, funding of public two and four-year institutions has declined by approximately $10 billion the level it was just prior the recession.  To be sure, it is a complicated, multi-faceted issue with no easy answers.  It does, however, seem like an important enough issue to warrant balanced, thoughtful discourse.

Is your institution fulfilling the “American Dream”?

To find a link to the complete Equality of Opportunity study, including data for the mobility rate for all colleges and universities, click here


1The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940 by Raj Chetty, David Grusky, Maximilian Hell, Nathaniel Hendren, Robert Manduca, and Jimmy Narang

2U.S. Economic Outlook (Weekly)

Craig Lockwood, Managing Director Product and Marketing

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