Being an American is synonymous with having opportunity. A natural born American does not earn the right to opportunity; it is simply granted upon birth. This theoretical ability to change one’s circumstances allows for the economic mobility that America prides itself on.
Compared to the United Kingdom, Americans are less dependent on the income of their parents to predict their earnings. In fact, earning a college degree is still the single best predictor of an individual’s upward mobility in the United States , not necessarily his or her initial status. Therefore being an American in a sense means being able to modify one’s life through self-determination, and the open doors that this country provides.
In this respect, I’d qualify as a true American: I attend a city owned university, one where student loan debts can be avoided while earning a degree from a respected institution. I have the opportunity to manipulate my initial position through subsidized education and emerge in a higher standing. If my degree doesn’t help to escalate my socioeconomic position, the degree is at least expected to provide a fulfilling career in which my personal fulfillment is paramount, as opposed to rote work as a means to self-sustainability.
Economic mobility was touted as America’s selling point as far back as 1784. That was when Benjamin Franklin published “To those who would Remove to America”. In this work he says that the American dream was that of the laborer working from servanthood to ownership: “…if they are poor, they first begin as servants or journeymen (apprentices)…and they soon become masters, establish themselves in business, marry raise families, and become respectable citizens.”
As seductive as this rags to riches notion is, it is also misleading. Though America’s economy is no longer centered around farming, the fundamentals of this American dream is still deeply associated with the greatness of our country. While it is true in theory that Americans can elevate from a lower to the most privileged class, it is unlikely. According to the Wall Street Journal, only 4% of Americans can go from the lowest economic class to the higher ones. Yet, forty percent of Americans believe that it is plausible for most people to elevate substantially. The truth is that people at the extremes of the income continuum are more likely to stay within their class. While the middle class shows the most potential for change, this change can be to a lower position as well.
With these statistics in mind, chasing the American dream can at times feel like running on a treadmill. Conversely, every anecdotal tale of an American, natural born or immigrant, who achieves the dream, makes it all the more tangible. Which leaves this question for my fellow college students: does earning your degree provide for you a sense of certainty in upward mobility?