Is America the best place to chase the American Dream?

Reading about the extraordinary college admissions scandal in the U.S. this past week, one couldn’t help but be astounded by:

  1. The amount of money even the richest of the rich think is worth spending to get their kids into School A instead of School B, not to mention being willing to risk jail time for this illegal activity (whoops, they probably didn’t think that was going to happen!).
  2. The fact that it costs such staggering sums of money to attend these Ivy League and other prestigious schools, compared with receiving a perfectly fine post-secondary education at a more reasonably-priced institution.
  3. The reminder that such a remarkably elitist system exists in the country to that has branded itself from early days as a meritocracy, where everyone had a chance at the American Dream. Get a good solid public school education, available to everyone, work hard, be conscientious, and the Dream is yours. It would appear that the playing field for the best and brightest is not that level after all.
  4. These parents clearly knew that they were passing on to their high school children the lesson that money and who you know will get you far; hard work, talent, intelligence, and compassion are for shmucks. It is difficult to know how a meritocracy survives much less thrives with that kind of message.

Credit: National Review

I grew up as what I thought was a product of the American Dream. As I understood it, quality public education for every citizen was the bedrock, the foundation of all foundations for the American Dream. But judging by the state-wide teachers’ strikes rotating around the country these days, that foundation has weakened. And judging by the fact that in many states public schools are funded by property taxes that vary significantly from district to district, the equal opportunity part of the equation for the American Dream seems to be falling short. This is sad and unnecessary in the world’s richest country.

Doing well in school and then being able to attend some kind of accessible post-secondary education is the second part of the equation for fulfilling the American Dream. And this is where the elitist part comes in. Perhaps most Americans aren’t aware of the fact that in most other western countries, the cost to attend university doesn’t vary much from institution to institution. Yes, some are harder to get into, but there are opportunities for all and the quality of learning from one to the next is very similar. And enriching campus experiences abound everywhere. In Canada, tuition at any university will be in the range of $6,500-$10,000 (Canadian dollars!), with a few engineering programs being a bit more and law being more. It doesn’t matter if you go to McGill, the University of New Brunswick, the University of British Columbia, or Acadia, your costs will be comparable. And this is true in most places. The public-private school divide and the extreme costs that accompany this dual system simply don’t exist to the same extent elsewhere.

And, while Americans often gasp at the tax rates of the other western countries – the taxes that have universal health care, generous parental leaves, etc. – and the citizens of the other western countries complain about their higher taxes, these citizens in the other countries have no idea that property taxes in the States are in most cases orders of magnitude higher than elsewhere, because they are really school taxes on top of other municipal requirements. It kind of all comes out in the wash.

The American Dream speaks to upward mobility and the idea that every citizen has the opportunity, through and education and hard work, to do better than his or her parents did, and that everyone can own their own home. And, as with modern democracy, which started with the Founding Fathers, that notion of the American Dream has spread far beyond its borders. That has been a very good thing. What’s not to admire in that dream? Sadly for Americans, it seems that momentum for the American Dream has been lost in the past few decades. I can’t help but wonder if some of the inequities that have crept into the education systems have played a part.

Credit: Omaha Mercury News

According to a number of studies of the OECD countries, “by international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility; our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. … only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility.“ Economist Joseph Stiglitz has suggested, “Maybe we should be calling the American Dream the Scandinavian Dream.” (Wikipedia, American Dream)

The desire for upward mobility and opportunity for all, based on merit, is something embraced worldwide, and in many, many parts of the world the U.S. remains the #1 go-to place for people who want their families to be able to get ahead. It is indeed regrettable that the college admissions scandal has shone a spotlight on some ugly chinks in the story. But on the other hand, this sad situation presents an opportunity to turn things around and ensure that the most deserving students are the ones who are admitted to the most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Surely that can only be good for these institutions, the best students, and for the country.

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11 Responses to Is America the best place to chase the American Dream?

  1. Jean says:

    I’m glad the Canadian universities and colleges in general, don’t emphasize so much on sports to bring in students just because of their athleticism as a priority admission for the institution’s sports team. I detest the elitism and money for the top rated U.S. private universities.

    Still, the Canadian public top-rated universities are still way more money than when we were students.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You’re right, Jean, and it is a concern, a big concern. The ratio of tuition to an average starting salary now in Canada is probably half or less than what it was 50 years ago when I graduated. And yet, interestingly, a far larger percentage of the population goes to university than used to.

  2. Interesting Jane. Thank you. 🌺

  3. K E Garland says:

    I’m not sure the “American dream” ever really manifested itself fully for everyone in America. The recent scandal is just one example.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You are right, Kathy, thank you for reminding me. It was accessible to many, but never everyone and never equitably. For no defensible reason. Yet a great and laudable concept, not to mention attainable with commitment. The reality is sad.

  4. You are so right Jane. I’ve held on to the American dream but clearly under the current administration it has disappeared.
    Growing up I never doubted that I would or could, get a college education. It was expected of me and available to me. My father worked extra jobs so all three of his children could get a great education. He was forced to leave college and fight in WWII so I believe he wanted his children to have the opportunity he lost out on.
    My oldest son received academic scholarships and had his pick of schools to select from. By the time my youngest son was of college age we were in the midst of the Bush economic housing crash and I was relieved that I had started putting money away in a Florida pre paid college program which began after my oldest was already in college. My youngest fortunately received multiple academic scholarships along with the prepaid money and since he was an advanced placement student in high school he took state tests getting credit for taking college level classes while still in high school. That meant he began his university years with two years of college credit and that saved us even more money.
    By the time my grandkids were born, the Florida prepaid program opened up a grandparent program which allowed grandparents the ability to pay for an individual year of prepaid college tuition. This program broke up the high cost and burden to parents. So I am currently paying for a year of college for each of my grandchildren. My ex husband is doing the same and that means my son pays for the other two years for each kid. Otherwise, I don’t know how he would be able to afford college for three children. College is outrageously expensive. Even state schools. And here’s the thing. I’ve been very fortunate. My children were both gifted students with advanced academic grades, so they both earned academic scholarships. On my teacher’s salary I wouldn’t have been able to afford their schools had they not been excellent scholars. My grandchildren are also gifted academically. So it is likely they too will qualify for scholarships when they are older. But what about that average kid? Their opportunities for financial help isn’t going to be easy unless they take out loans. I personally don’t understand why these wealthy parents had to illegally buy their children ‘s future. There had many schools to chose from. My kids knew that if they wanted to keep their scholarships they couldn’t play around. They understood their parents were teachers and money was tight. They worked high school and studied. And college was the same. The American dream I suppose was gone for them. But they had their own dreams and followed their goals. They are successful adults now so I guess it worked out well. The American dream I always wanted was freedom and equality. I fear we have lost those dreams under Trump.
    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      This is why it’s so important for you to be back blogging, Lesley. You have so much to say and share, and you do it so well. Thanks for sharing your personal examples of the erosion of access to education for all qualified students. It’s an issue in Canada, too, as far as student debt is concerned, but not as extreme.

  5. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    So is the Canadian dream much different– it cost us boomers very little to go to university and jobs were waiting for us, just doesn’t seem to be quite that way anymore.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Good question, Wayne. There are definitely more challenges wrt employment than there were in the 60s, but expectations for housing a consumer goods weren’t the same either. Nothing is perfect, but I would argue that there is a difference in accessibility to public school education of reasonably similar quality (First Nations opportunities would be a sad exception in many places) and to more affordable (although still way too high) post-secondary education based on ability in Canada as opposed to the US, although I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

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