American Dream becomes the ultimate goal instead of the standard

Janelle Polcyn

Everyone seeks to achieve the “American Dream,” but a UT professor argues that the middle class is becoming more estranged from the goal for the first time in 50 years.

Owning a home, succeeding financially and retiring debt-free have been the three pillars of the American Dream since it was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams as “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable … regardless … of birth or position.”

Law professor Mechele Dickerson is currently researching the shift away from homeownership as part of why the American Dream is becoming less achievable.

“First, for the last 30 years, income for everybody but the highest earners has been flat or in decline,” Dickerson said. “Second, this notion that you graduate and you’ll get a full-time job working 40 hours a week with benefits is no longer the norm.”

Dickerson said one problem is colleges are becoming more expensive while financial aid is declining. This has resulted in students with “massive” debt upon graduation, and low-earning graduates resorting to renting instead of owning homes — missing the first pillar of the American Dream.

“It’s a lot harder than what it used to be,” corporate communications sophomore Tayler Johnson said. “A lot of things have changed in America in terms of inflation and receiving a job itself. We can’t change things like the inflation rate in the next year or two that has to happen in the next 20 or 30 years. Those things are really hard.”

The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit research organization that works to make higher education more affordable, reports that nationally, 69 percent of students from private and public colleges graduate with debt averaging $29,000. In Texas, while the rate is lower, it’s still significant with 59 percent graduating with debt averaging $26,000. The institute reports the amount of debt rose at more than twice the rate of inflation between 2004 and 2014.

Students see the change in the dream and know they might not achieve every part of it.

“I think it’s possible, but it’s very difficult,” biology sophomore Katie Steinhauser said. “I think the idea of [the American Dream] propels us to work towards it, but when you realize how much work it is, you might want to compromise for something that’s less.”