Higher Education: On the Path to the American Dream

The American Dream has been in the news a lot in recent years. It’s the idea that all people have a fair shot at a good life—equal opportunity with social mobility; each generation does better than the one before it; and advancement does not depend on being born with advantages.

But is the “Dream” in the news because we’re on a death watch? Whether it’s research by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues showing a stark decline in the share of Americans moving up the income ladder over time, or it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ best-seller, Between the World and Me, arguing that for black Americans the dream was never real to begin with, are we about to read an obituary?

The decline of the American Dream isn’t destined. Making the Dream real is a product of our choices, because it is less a dream than it is a gift, given by our society through opportunity. And in an increasingly complex world, higher education is an especially powerful gift of opportunity.

Attaining the Dream requires individuals to work hard, show integrity and have some luck. It also requires that we dismantle current barriers to advancement, and provide chances to recover for those who stumble. What institution in our society provides more opportunities than higher education? American education gives us—and the world—the chance to make something more of ourselves than our circumstances would otherwise allow. Done right, it’s a catalyst, thrusting us into situations that challenge us every day, developing our insight and broadening our views, preparing us to take on challenges over our careers and our lives.

At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the fact that U.S. higher education is one of many institutions in which public confidence has plummeted. People are grappling with student debt; they are trying to figure out whether college degrees have real value. State funding for public universities has declined drastically, and skeptics are questioning whether college and the American Dream are even connected anymore.

My job—like those of other academic leaders—is to help connect the dots, to ensure that education matters, and to demonstrate its real impact, both personal and societal. I originally went to college to study business out of curiosity, having been struck by the realization that with business success often comes wealth. With wealth comes influence over the shape of society—the rules that govern the Dream. In my current role, I often ask myself: can all of our business leaders emerge as champions of the American Dream? Can our universities, and especially our colleges of business, produce alumni who are committed to creating value—not for their companies alone but through their companies for all of us, and aimed not solely at their own bank accounts, but at creating opportunity for many others?

We prepare rising business students for success in an increasingly global economy, but we haven’t done our job fully unless we also help them discover the notion that the American Dream is a gift. Higher education is part of their path forward—it may be the boost they need to actually reach for the wealth of possibilities at their fingertips—but by no means is it the end of the road. We see our students and graduates starting their own businesses, moving ahead in their careers and returning for more education to make career changes possible. We see them achieving their dreams and growing into roles that allow them to repay the gift of the American Dream to others.

To be sure, there are valid reasons we question the American Dream. But it is important to remember that we are also living in a time of rediscovery and reinvention. In higher education, we have an opportunity to rethink our role in keeping this gift of opportunity accessible and affordable. We can innovate, we can create insight and we can make the Dream real for anyone willing to reach for it.

The Washington State University Carson College of Business aims to benefit the business and academic communities of Washington state, the region and the world, by advancing knowledge through scholarly and applied research; developing globally competitive business leaders, educators and scholars; and creating value through engagement with business and academic communities. Monthly columns discussing a variety of innovative business education topics are provided by the dean of the Carson College, Chip Hunter, and other research professors and faculty.

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