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The American Dream and Media Frenzy

by Marvin Lazerson - November 22, 2010

The dream of getting ahead fueled the tremendous expansion of higher education in the last half of the twentieth century, with consequences for learning, governance and management, and the role of money.

When I decided to title my newest manuscript, Higher Education and the American Dream, I was unaware that I was throwing myself into a media frenzy. What happened to the American Dream, the loss of the American Dream, reinventing the American Dream, can Americans recover the dream—these questions now seem to be all around us. Variations are even cropping up elsewhere. The Süddeutsche Zeitung, the prominent newspaper published in southern Germany, recently pointed to the loss of the German Dream, meaning the disappearance of permanent job security from youth to retirement, preferably in the same company.

My interests were more academic, for my questions were how did higher education in the U.S. in the last half of the 20th century become such a large and prominent industry, and what were the consequences of that growth. The answers I found were both simple and complex.

In the decades after World War II Americans built their dream on a three-legged stool: new house, new car, and higher education. Personal desires, supportive public policies, and new technologies combined to make the dream a reality. Cheap and readily available government subsidized loans to builders and house buyers, massive federally funded highway projects and cheap oil, fellowships and research funds combined to convert what had once been luxuries into widespread, almost universal, aspirations. That millions were unable to achieve the dream made the aspiration seem hollow, a point the civil rights and women’s movements underscored even as they brought the dream vitality.

In this mix higher education emerged as the most important of the three legs for two reasons. First, in typically American fashion, it was a statement about the future. Houses, cars, and other signs of material success could come and go, but higher education was permanent. Once you had it, it could not be lost or taken away. The second was that higher education achieved what no one could have predicted before World War II: it became the exclusive route to more and more professions, and years of schooling increased in just about every profession. Going to college was not simply a way of getting ahead; it became necessary to gain access to professional status and income.

Few industries grew so fast, gained such prestige, or affected the lives of so many people. Higher education received remarkable sums of money from federal, state, and local governments; alumni and foundations gave generously; and families saved, borrowed, and postponed purchases. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of degree granting institutions more than doubled, from 1,851 to 4,084. Enrollments increased from 2.6 million to 14.8 million in the same fifty years. Measured in 2008 dollars, annual expenditures went from $2.2 billion in 1950 to $134.6 billion in 1990.

So why did they come and why was so much money made available? The simple answer is that millions of individuals went to college and university in order to get ahead. That pressure—apparent in the sprouting of branch university campuses and the founding of new institutions—forced political leaders of every stripe to support public expenditures. Higher education was, quite simply, a good thing—good for the individuals who went and good for the society that supported them.

Were they correct? Yes! It paid to go to college. Large numbers of Americans were and remain willing to pay substantial fees, borrow large sums of money, and support public subsidies to higher education because they are convinced that it is in their best interest. Families and students who realize that going to college brings better jobs, higher income, professional status, and greater security are reading the labor market correctly. That was and remains the central tenet of the American Dream.

But here is where the situation gets substantially more complicated than the “go to college, get a better job” principle implies. Higher levels of schooling do not guarantee access to better employment and higher earnings; schooling is necessary but often insufficient. Much depends upon where you go to college, whether you receive a degree and whether you continue past the first degree, what subject(s) you major in, your gender and race, as well as the overall condition of the labor market when you enter it and a whole set of personal characteristics. With all of that, however, the fact is that going to college and beyond has been and remains a smart choice for most Americans. As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz write in their excellent book, The Race between Education and Technology (Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 325), “education is still a very good investment. In fact the marginal individual who does not graduate high school, who does not continue to college, and who does not complete college is leaving large amounts of money lying in the street.”

Higher education’s success in attaching itself to the American Dream has had a number of consequences. One has been the overwhelming redefinition of college attendance in terms of vocational outcomes. Just about everything—from programs offered and academic achievement to volunteer activities and study abroad—has been redefined in terms of whether it will help students get better jobs. What W. Norton Grubb and I, in The Education Gospel (Harvard University Press, 2004), call vocationalism has infiltrated every aspect of learning. And, it has adverse effects on learning: when the measure of all learning becomes its relationship to job acquisition, it is hard to take a liberal education seriously—even though liberal arts colleges claim that they improve the chances of finding a job.

Growth produced two other consequences: the need for professional governance and the power of money. America’s colleges and universities are a cross between corporate entities and mini-cities. The range of services they supply is mind-boggling—security and police, real-estate acquisition and management, budgeting and financing, development and alumni affairs, human resources and planning, legal and medical services, technology and information systems, student services and housing, community involvement and public relations, athletics and career counseling, and sometimes management of hospitals, medical centers, and hotels. And this list does not include all the services directly connected to teaching and research. For anyone outside the United States, such a list would be incomprehensible. These services all need to be managed. There is no way around that, and calls to turn power back to the professors, to downsize or eliminate professional offices are rhetorical flourishes that divert attention from the real issue, which is, how can these services be delivered in economical and efficient ways.

Money has also become the name of the game. The song made famous by the film, Cabaret, “Money makes the world go round, makes the world go round” certainly applies to higher education. This has led to a circular state of affairs; every institution needs more money to grow, which in turn requires even more money. The competitive environment in which colleges and universities work, the market competition for students, faculty, and staff, all mean that incentives are necessary—more money for faculty, better working conditions and benefits for staff, and for students, more of the things they already have at home or wish they had.

So what does all of this still have to do with the American Dream? Most obviously, anyone who says we can separate higher education from the dream is either an idiot or lying. It is not going to happen—except by building a serious system of alternative ways of getting ahead, meaning serious, attractive, and well-financed apprenticeship and education routes that involve not simply access to good jobs but mechanisms for substantial advancement. This would require new ways of structuring entry and advancement into the professions that do not entail long years in school, which in turn means greater regulation of labor markets and rules of employment—but this is not going to happen in our lifetime.

Therefore, the focus over the next few decades should lie with the following simple considerations: how can we engage students to become citizens of a democracy; what would help them become knowledgeable about the burning issues of our times; how can they learn to participate in a politics of thoughtfulness rather than the ranting that passes for politics today; and what will help them prepare for professional activities so that they can grow in their work? These are the questions on which we need to focus. The fact that approximately 45 percent of entering college students fail to graduate, with even higher percentages of minority students and students from low-income families, attests to the importance of such engagement. That students are learning so much less than what they are capable of, and that so many leave college without the analytic and decision-making skills essential for active democratic citizenship, is a national tragedy. Next to these compelling issues, most everything else is—well—media frenzy.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 22, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16239, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:16:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Marvin Lazerson
    Central European University
    MARVIN LAZERSON is professor of higher education policy at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary and professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book, Higher Education and the American Dream, is published by Central European University Press.
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