Higher Education and the "American Dream": A Faulty Formula for Success

Christine Mazzarino I Education I Commentary I July 5th, 2013

From childhood, I was always taught that there was a formula for success. This formula was taught to me by my parents and reinforced by nearly everyone I came in contact with; teachers, grandparents, mentors, and so on. The formula is no secret and the steps were seemingly simple enough:

1. Go to college

2. Get a job

3. Work hard

4. Be successful

Sound familiar? It should. This formula has been part of the so-called American dream for decades, and college has been considered to be the portal to success for over a generation. However, college graduates are increasingly finding that the American dream of college is quickly becoming a nightmare.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average annual cost of a college education was $18,497 for the 2010-2011 school year. Multiply that cost by four years, and that equates to the average college student shelling out $73,988 for a bachelor's degree. This cost can vary widely from public to private schools, with students at private colleges and universities spending over $125,000 on average for a bachelor's degree, and in some cases, in excess of $200,000, depending upon the institution. And these costs don't include any additional degrees or professional credentials, which are becoming more and more necessary to distinguish yourself in the increasingly competitive workforce.

Employment prospects upon graduation don't do much to justify the cost of a degree. Based upon NCES statistics, graduates of the class of 2012 experienced between 13% and 18% unemployment rates, depending upon their age. Statistics on underemployment are more challenging to acquire, but media outlets such as the New York Times reported in 2012 that college grads had a one in two chance of being either underemployed or unemployed upon graduation.

The lucky grads who snag a job in their field of study can expect to earn an average salary of $44,259, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers September 2012 salary survey. Considering the cost of living in many part of the country, this wage is hardly enough to get by with monthly bills, much less put a dent in a student loan debt.

The coupling of poor prospects for well-paid employment and the high cost of post-secondary education has spurred a new debate about the value of a college education. Students are increasingly questioning the value of an education that might not help them get a job or pay their student debt. In terms of statistics, prospective students need to consider if it's worth it to spend nearly $80,000 on college to have a 50% chance to get a job that pays about $44,000 annually. For many students, these figures simply don't add up.

Based on today's statistics, it's time for a major revision of the American dream. The old rules for success no longer apply. A college degree no longer guarantees a job, and a job no longer guarantees financial security. It's time to rethink the messages we send our youth about the connections between college, success, and financial security instead of clinging to a system that can't support the students it serves.