Do Americans Believe Hard Work Still Matters?

Yes, but they're more skeptical about whether going to college helps them achieve their goals.

Keith Bedford / Reuters

For the past several decades, it seems there’s been a general consensus on how to get ahead in America: Get a college education, find a reliable job, and buy your own home.

But do Americans still believe in that path, and if they do, is it attainable?

The most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll asked respondents about the American dream, what it takes to achieve their goals, and whether or not they felt a significant amount of control over their ability to be successful. Overwhelmingly, the results show that today, the idea of the American dream—and what it takes to achieve it—looks quite different than it did in the late 20th century.

By and large, people felt that that their actions and hard work—not outside forces—were the deciding factor in how their lives turned out. But respondents had decidedly mixed feelings about what actions make for a better life in the current economy. For example, most Americans now see personal debt as an obstacle to success. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said that debt encourages people to spend beyond their means, and become burdened with years of interest payments. Unsurprisingly, the only exception were students, the majority of whom still see personal debt as a road to opportunity, since investing in a college degree can result in lower unemployment rates and higher wages. And that’s important, since respondents were split on whether or not incomes would grow faster or slower than they have in the past.

In the last seven years, Americans have grown more pessimistic about the power of education to lead to success. Even though they see going to college as a fairly achievable goal, a majority—52 percent—think that young people do not need a four-year college education in order to be successful, compared to 44 percent when the same question was posed in 2009.

Miguel Maeda, 42, who has a master’s degree and works in public health, was the first in his family to go to college, which has allowed him to achieve a sense of financial stability his parents and grandparents never did. “The fact that they never got to where they wanted to be financially was a very big engine for me to get an education,” Maeda told me.

Maeda thinks that college education is particularly necessary given the highly competitive nature of many fields. “I can tell you that even with a master’s degree the job market is very hard, because companies are looking for master’s and above.”

Still, Maeda said, whether or not you need college depends on your field. “I don’t think that everybody needs a college degree, because we need people going into technical fields as well, because otherwise, who’s going to fix A/C units, who’s going to fix cars? But I would say that the more education you have, the better off you are.”

While some, like Maeda, emphasized the value of the credential rather than the education itself, others still see college as a way to gain new perspectives and life experiences. Daisy Martinez, currently a college sophomore in Texas studying history and theater, values her college education for giving her “diverse experiences I never would have had otherwise.”

Sixty-year-old Will Fendley, who had a successful career in the military and never earned a college degree, thinks “personal drive” is far more important than just going to college. “A lot of people have a college degree and still don’t know what they want to do,” Fendley said. “If someone wants to better themselves and has a reason for bettering themselves, whether it be taking care of themselves or a family member, that person is going to work harder, and apply themselves more to get ahead.”

To Fendley, this sense of drive and purpose, as well as an effective high-school education, and basic life skills, like balancing a checkbook, are the necessary ingredients for a successful life in America.

Those with right-leaning political beliefs were the most likely to think college unnecessary. When it came to income, the middle classes did not think college was necessary, while the poorest and the wealthiest respondents still thought it did. Results to this question also varied according to race: 60 percent of Hispanics still think college is necessary; compared with 51 percent of blacks and 44 percent of whites.

Like views on education, attitudes about homeownership, too, skewed towards pessimism. A majority of those polled believe that homeowners have taken on too much debt, and now cannot afford to pay their mortgages, leading to foreclosures and instability in their communities. That may be why most respondents felt negatively about purchasing a home, despite the fact they considered it an achievable goal.

Americans were the most pessimistic about the prospects of becoming wealthy—nearly 75 percent did not think it was achievable for people like them. They were also pessimistic about the ability to retire comfortably. Americans felt that other traditional measures of success, like raising a family and having a rewarding career, were slightly more attainable. And despite their pessimism, nearly two-thirds of respondents said that their lives were representative of the American dream.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 25th in a series examin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­ien­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll, which reprises central questions that the survey explored mostly in its first two years to document how American attitudes have changed since the Great Recession, sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones from Jan. 2 to Jan 6. 2016. The sur­vey has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points. The sur­vey was su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy and Joseph McMahon of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions practice.