According to Dr. Thomas Shapiro, the American dream “is the promise that those who work equally hard will reap roughly equal rewards” (Shapiro, 2004, p. 87). Higher education is widely regarded as a vehicle for sustaining this dream. This belief in the potential of education to act as an equalizer is supported by research, which consistently shows that a person who attains a four-year college degree earns more than a person who does not attain a four-year degree. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that educational achievement is the primary way that Americans born in poverty may leave it. Stories of those who escape poverty through education serve to support a reassuring narrative: providing access to higher education is all that is needed to keep the American dream vibrant.
There have always been holes in this vision of American success, but today more than ever, higher education’s role as a force for equity has deteriorated, such that college may serve more to perpetuate the status quo than to create ladders of opportunity. Tracing and naming the factors that contribute to the erosion of higher education’s equalizing role is an essential step in reinvigorating the American dream. Uncovering those factors begins with an honest conversation about student debt.
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