American Dreams: The Promise of College

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

#AtlanticAmericanDream: Princeton through its arches

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In Matt Thompson’s short history on the meaning of the American Dream, he prompted readers to share “what the dream represents to you, whether your vision of the dream is dead, dying, or hasn’t yet been born.” Nicole Qualtieri, a reader from Bozeman, Montana, reflects on her struggle to keep the dream alive:

When I think of the American Dream, I think of a happy couple in a white picket fence neighborhood, with 1.7 kids and a golden retriever playing in the yard and two hybrid SUVs in the driveway. I think of financial stability and beach vacations and college funds and private schools. I think of 401ks, health insurance with low deductibles, masters degrees, mommy blogs, and Crossfit/yoga memberships for the whole family.

As the kid of a working-class family growing up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, I was very much so surrounded by a trope of that American Dream, and I was raised on that American Dream to a point. College was the thing that was constantly held over my head, the thing to be aspired to, the mark of upward mobility that would elevate my status and create a sort of social promise—a promise that to me felt to be the crux of the American Dream.

If you go to college, doors will be opened to and for you. Then, work hard. That’s all it takes.

I eventually did get into college—a public, in-state, safety-school type of college. After six years of attempting to do it on my own—through balancing two to three part-time jobs, a full course load, and a club sport—I graduated, with a price tag of $40,000 hanging over my head.

As a first generation student with the highest level of financial need, I had grown up with money as a constant stressor, so I grasped onto loans like a life vest and it kept me afloat.

These days, at 31 years old, I view these loans very differently.

In stark contrast to the life support that they once were for me, they have become the turbulent water pulling me under. Like many millennials, I’ve worked my way through a multitude of resume-building jobs in which I’ve sought out creative fulfillment, career satisfaction, and a sense of stability. Those jobs have ranged from low-paying positions that are interesting and fulfilling to high-pressure high-paying jobs in which I had to sacrifice my life in order to be successful.

And all the while, even amidst the high paying jobs, I have felt the weight of that $40k sitting like a boulder on my chest. I’ve learned to see my student loans as a second income tax against my working-class status. As I made more money, I watched the loans take away more of it. I was never able to build the true kind of financial plan I envisioned or fully enjoy the money I was making, to put it away for safekeeping, to begin to legitimately save for a home or a new car or to invest the amount I should have been investing in my 401k.

Then, when I made less money, I’d watch the interest tack on all of those dollars that I had so dutifully put towards the balance. I watched as my country attempted to profit off my attempt to break out of my socioeconomic position. It’s an indescribable feeling, a veritable slap in the face to my own sense of upward mobility.

These days, I watch on social media as many of my good friends who didn’t have to pay for college are able to buy homes and begin to invest their lives in ways that currently seem unattainable for me, ways that mimic the American Dream I grew up with. Often this is done with the help of their parents, who paid for their college, for the down payment on their home, and who might have gifted them the hybrid SUV in their driveway.

And as they travel along on their paths of stability and privilege, I go on a date where the guy I’m talking with reveals that he has $60,000 in student loans, and I’m adding the numbers and the years of payments in my head and practically excusing myself from the table in the process.

I did everything right. This is where I start having problems with the social contract that higher education was supposed to sign alongside me. This is where I begin to really lose sight of that personal optimism that so many people seem to somehow maintain.

So what is the American Dream to me now?

I don’t doubt my own ability to be successful in the American sense. If I wanted to make the kind of money that could erase this issue, I could sacrifice a good portion of the youth that I have left to 80-100 hour work weeks in high pressure corporate sales—a track I was on for awhile—and maybe even afford a therapist to talk me through all of the nervous breakdowns that come along with that.

The other choice is to continue down the paycheck-to-paycheck path of creative fulfillment that I have crossed into since leaving corporate America two years ago, but it’s a path in which I know the payoff is precarious and hidden somewhere on a far-off horizon. It’s a path in which I consider getting a masters degree and possibly pursuing even more of the thing that weighs me down, all in hopes of what? Spiritual fulfillment? Creative agency? A chance for some sort of greatness amidst the chaos?

Hope is the key element lying within these rhetorical questions, but I don’t give it much credence these days. It’s a faint enough glimmer, a reflection of a young, enthusiastic, hard-working person who once believed in the American Dream enough to buy into its script, to follow it to the letter, and to end up with it strapping down my financial future and holding it hostage.

I’d like to think this is a story of eventual redemption, but I’m not so sure. To hang on blindly to the notion that picket fences and beach vacations are right around the corner seems to be the running of a fool’s errand.

But the one American tenet that continues to stick has been my ability to stay stubborn and resilient in the midst of the disappointment and the financial defeat. My red, white, and blue bootstraps are well worn and familiar by this point, so I’ll continue to bite my lip, pull myself up, gain some traction, hum a patriotic Toby Keith song, and hope that the straps don’t break entirely.

More stories here. Have your own to tell? What’s your vision of the American Dream? Email hello@theatlantic.com.