One of the great things that makes America special is its national belief that the "rags to riches" tale can happen here. For generations, immigrants have streamed into the country, sometimes bringing only what they could carry, because they knew of the economic opportunity that America presented. No matter how poor they were in Italy, Russia, Ireland, Mexico, or China, immigrants have known for generations that no society presents as much economic opportunity as ours. I know this personally from my experiences growing up in an immigrant family from Puerto Rico. We lived in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn with multiple relatives. We didn't always have a lot, but we knew we had a future here. In time, I became a successful serial entrepreneur. I am living proof that the American Dream still exists.
Unfortunately, many Americans are losing faith that the American Dream can still be achieved. A CNN poll from 2014 showed that 59% of Americans think the American Dream is unreachable, compared to 54% in 2006. Why do individuals have so much unbelief in their personal future?
One of the great causes of this pessimism is the stagnation of upward mobility. By upward mobility, I mean the potential for people to climb from the lower rungs of the economic ladder to the higher ones. This progression used to be a distinct feature of American life, but today it is less of a reality. One study even claims that if you're born poor today, you are as likely to stay poor as your grandparents were Another showed that half of people in the lowest income bracket were just as likely to be there 10 years later. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that the issue of stagnant mobility could be the most important to the 2016 Presidential election.
The problem is real. So how do we fix it?
There are lots of pieces to the puzzle, but the largest component must be education. The correlation between income and education is very clear: the more you have, the more you (usually) make. Not only do we need to improve the quality of K-12 education, but equipping our students with strong skill sets in higher education is necessary as well. Unfortunately, higher education is one of the most expensive products in America: top-flight universities are rapidly heading toward a $70,000 per year price tag! The cost of higher education has restricted the ability of many lower-income individuals to obtain a college degree, and consequently, they haven't been able to ascend the ladder of higher income.
The incredible price increase of a four-year college degree means that a community college education is growing as a value proposition. Community colleges usually cost a good deal less in tuition than four-year colleges, and they place a greater emphasis on equipping their students with hard, workplace-relevant skills (accounting, nursing, IT, etc.) over less objective subjects like literature, psychology, or art (not that those are bad things). Unfortunately, many students in community college come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and need extra attention and guidance to succeed. What community colleges need now are greater numbers of guidance counselors, and better technological tools to help those counselors evaluate student progress and guide them toward sustainable career pathways.
President Obama's plan for free community college has a lot of promise for encouraging the kinds of economic mobility that the country needs.
People across the political spectrum might disagree on the causes of why mobility has stagnated, but it is obvious that more education, and especially a scaling up of community college education, should be part of the solution.