Dropping In: Education and the American Dream

Myth of the Successful College Dropout

Myth of the Successful College Dropout

“Appealing as it may be, the against-all-odds story of the college dropout is not the story we should be selling our young people.” (The Atlantic) The term “dropout” entered the American discourse in the 1930s. Before 1937, the majority of Americans did not earn a high school diploma, much less a college degree. However, since the founding of the United States, access to high quality and affordable education has been the safest bet for reaching the American Dream of financial independence. The onset of the Great Depression highlighted the necessity of secondary education for success as an adult. The 1920 census marked the first time that the majority of American lived in urban areas rather than the rural countryside. The nation’s slow transformation from a rural society to a more urban landscape paralleled the growth of advanced public education. In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase, “The American Dream” as a shared national value. He denied that the American Dream was a desire for great wealth. Adams argued instead that the idea was “of a land where life should be better, and richer, and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement”(The Epic of America, 1931). Public education provided that road to opportunity for the majority of young Americans.

In 1910, 20% of 10-15 year olds spent their days working for wages and most Americans did not attend school beyond age 14. An even higher percentage of young people labored in agriculture. Only 15% of American adults had a high school education and most communities did not offer public schooling beyond 8th grade. Race, class, gender, and ethnicity also hindered access. The number of high schools expanded rapidly in the 1920s, but primarily in cities. Small towns and rural communities continued to lag far behind and Jim Crow segregation meant that black Americans had even fewer opportunities for quality education.

By 1930, only 50% of 14-17 year olds attended high school. The onset of the Great Depression forced thousands of schools to close their doors or shorten school terms. Nevertheless, by 1933, the New Deal included funding to keep thousands of teachers employed in school districts that ran out of money. Work-relief programs like the Works Progress Administration paid for the construction of thousands of new high schools. These new facilities coupled with the dismal job market to encourage teenagers and their parents to believe that a high school education as a necessity for success in adulthood. The New Deal’s National Youth Administration sweetened the pot by offering modest stipends to young people who stayed in school and earned a high school diploma, or even a college degree. In 1937, for the first time in American history, the majority of the nation’s 17 year-olds earned a high school diploma.

The trend continued in the decades after the Second World War. Baby boomers and their parents increasingly embraced attending college as a necessity. The recent attention to the problem of college loan debt makes it enticing to believe that college dropouts may be better off than their peers who stay in school. Success stories like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are often used as examples of successful college dropouts. However, these individuals are exceptions. As a look at the experience of young Americans in the past shows, a high school and college education is an individual and a public good. (The Atlantic).

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