College and the American Dream

I am not one of these the world is ending soon conspiracy types. However I think the American dream is just that a dream and like most dreams you cannot relive it or reclaim it once it’s over. Oh, you ever have a sexy dream that leaves you wanting more upon awakening? Hell you even go back to sleep and try to make your mind pick up where it left off but it almost never happens.

Well the American idea of going to college, getting a “good” job, a house, a spouse and a few kids and living happily after, for most Americans is a dream. Oh we start em young pounding into their heads that you must have a college degree in order to make it. Yet the reality is that for all the young adults who register in the nation’s colleges and universities at best only 30% of them will graduate with a 4 year degree and even that takes longer than 4 years for most students.

Don’t get me wrong, even in this recession we are seeing that the college educated are faring better than those without degrees but at what cost? Once upon a time in this country we produced things, folks knew how to do tasks that we all but hire others to do and even then we sometimes can’t find the help to do those so called menial tasks. Yet in almost 7 years of homeownership I have come to value the men and women in the trades and wonder why we are not encouraging our youth to consider jobs like plumber, electrician, carpenter, etc. If you have ever needed one of these types of folks you know that they stay busy and in many cases earn far more than the average college educated person.

The thing is for every person who goes to college and graduates and becomes financially secure there are probably a good 10 other college graduates who are struggling to survive under the weight of loan debt. College is expensive, gone are the days a kid could work all summer and pay a portion of the tuition. Unless a kid is slanging drugs, not too many kids are going to be earning any meaningful amount to pay towards their schooling. I have a kid in college and even with grants and scholarships, it’s still pricey and for the truly working class family hard to achieve.

Then there is the fact that as someone who completed their undergraduate and graduate education a number of years ago, it seems we now live in a world where even that is not good enough. The HR folks want to see that you are steady learning, adding continuing education, certifications, etc…when the fuck does it end?

If you are like me and a member of the sandwich generation, it starts to feel a tad suffocating with your own loan obligations, a kid in college and now an aging parent in my house. I am realizing that all the things I thought were part of the dream don’t really exist. Instead I strive to live in the moment, find joy and try not to think that I will probably have my social security checks garnished to pay back my student loans. So I will live in the shitty old folk’s home praying that I don’t have to resort to Meow Mix to keep my belly full. And why? Because I bought the dream that college was a necessity and would open the doors to good things when the truth is the good stuff is already there.

Perhaps as a society if we valued learning for the sake of learning and not just as a means to an ends we would all be better off. If we understood that all the degrees in the world mean nothing if it’s below zero and your furnace dies and you need a repair guy but have to wait 8 hours because you can’t handle a simple fix. If we valued all workers and what they bring to the table we would have greater balance in our lives and stop searching for a dream that will never come back again.  Better yet we would understand there are many paths to economic freedom and happiness without making folks believe their lives will magically be transformed by a fancy sheet of paper.

I feel I should add this post was inspired by several conversations I have had in the past day with different folks online and offline about the value of college.

3 thoughts on “College and the American Dream

  1. I have so many thoughts about this; I don’t know where to start.

    There are two dichotomies at work in this country, in my humble opinion. On the one hand, we don’t value education enough. I’m not talking about diplomas and degrees. Anyone–yes, anyone can get a college degree (I’ll address this point later.). I don’t think critical thinking is valued.

    On the other hand, and this may be unpopular, academic schooling is sold as the panacea for all problems, to the point that schooling has become so watered down and democratized. There’s this drive to make sure everyone has that diploma, that we will push students through schools at any costs, even if it means inflating grades at the risk of critical thinking. So the college market is oversaturated with degree-seeking kids and adults, who are just concerned with the end result: that piece of paper.

    As a college instructor at a supposedly public Ivy, I see this manifested in a sense of grade entitlement and it’s shocking. These kids are in a top school, but they aren’t all that bright and they want their education quick and painless. When I was in college at a Midwest Ivy back in the 90s I got my butt kicked academically, but I learned a ton! I had to work hard for a B! Lol.

    On top of all this, there are potentially bright kids being left behind because of their race, their zip code and historical inequalities. But no one gives a damn about them.

    You also made an interesting point: the death of tradesmanship as a viable skill. We live in a disposable society because no one knows how to make things anymore. If it breaks, you buy something new. (In other countries, it’s still possible to find someone who will repair a basic household item.) In the push to elevate the value of college, we neglected trade education. Everyone should be educated, but not everyone needs to attend college. The decline and disappearance of trade schools does a huge diservice to a significant part of the population, particularly those being left behind. We talk about the need to create jobs and the massive unemployment rate, but wouldn’t this be resolved by re-affirming the value of trades and creating a workforce that values all types of knowledge instead of creating the fantasy of success that is attached to having a college degree? Why not combine a solid liberal arts education (which I believe everyone should have) with a trade option that’s affortable and enables everyone to contribute. Ah, that would be much too easy and too threatening to this country’s capitalist values.

    (Insomnia is a bitch, btw)

    • I love what you said, hell you said what I think was trying to say. Like you I feel like the state of education is screwed because we see degrees as this thing we must have, so no one is learning to learn. Even my son has commented on that at his school, most of his classmates could care less about true learning…just getting a “good” grade.

      I think if we pushed the liberal arts education but also made it attractive for kids who really don’t dig on school to consider trades we would be in better shape.

      You are right about the disposable society, my stove recently broke and I lucked out in that I found an actual repair guy who was able to fix it. Yet he is like the last of a dying breed, guy had to be at least 60+ and there are only 2 appliance repair guys in my area. Friends were shocked that I actually got it repaired rather than replacing it.

      IMO trades are a great thing if one has the aptitude and as my hubby points out his Dad who was an electrician made far more money than he has ever made with his Northwestern degrees!

  2. Great post! I was funneled in to higher education, too, as a result of a school district that was so academically spot-on that they failed to recognize work or trades as a valuable post-high school experience. So now I’m dodging creditors which is bad news because they’re federal! Gotta get on that…

    My brother, however, was not buying in to the system as easily as I did. Although he’s looking for work now, he opted to go to trade school for one year (for a lot less $$ than I cost myself/my parents!) and he’s fully qualified as a small engine tech which is definitely higher yield than ‘artist.’

    I think because of our instant gratification, reality-TV obsessed culture people replace their meaningful connections with their less-than-meaningful electronics. Education always surprises me when I make a human connection, really dig down in to just listening to someone, and I’ll usually learn something new. But the theory’s gotta be applied across the board and when our regular cohorts are the cast of Survivor or our friends, filtered through Facebook, it gets harder to listen and learn on a meta level. Kids are designed to learn…it’s their #1 job and anyone who’s got ’em knows that! But something weird happens between 1 and 13 and I can’t quite put my finger on it but I’m pretty sure it has to do with hyper-exposure to anything and everything via the boob tube, etc.

    Really quite inspired by the altruistic goals set in the state of the union last night – although he wasn’t terribly specific I liked the fact I could take away what I want from the night. Mostly I think I want to be a teacher (eventually, once I’ve got enough experience) … is that totally bonkers?? 🙂

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