The Issue with the American Dream: Social Class and Education

6 min readMar 10, 2021

High social class has persistently been seen as having a direct correlation with the presence of higher education, abilities, or skills and the values of capitalistic societies tend to revolve around this idea. It perpetuates and fits perfectly into the narrative of the “American dream”, that everyone is capable of becoming rich and successful if they were to just work hard enough to achieve it. The issue with these kinds of sentiments lies in the way they have historically been used to further oppress marginalized social classes. The very institutions that claim to be the “gateway” to success and opportunities are created by and for people who already have access to those opportunities. Therefore, the systems of education in place in the United States today can never be the sole method for class advancement and upward mobility, because it is necessary to go beyond traditional forms of schooling to close the gap between classes.

In order to understand the bias of educational institutions in the U.S., it is necessary to first recognize that the American economy, culture, and society is centered around and dependent upon the middle class (Kornbluth, 2013). Through this lens it is possible to begin to examine the ways in which educational opportunities are molded for traditional, middle class students. Even before enrolling in a college or university, the concepts of social and cultural capital become critical, determining factors in a students success. The inherent worth and cultural value placed merely on attending particular institutions shows how the looming presence of elitism in higher education influences a persons outcome before they even begin. Historically elite universities such as Yale, Harvard, or Stanford hold high levels of cultural capital based on name alone. The degree one earns at these types of institutions may not even be as important as the social standing one achieves through attending them. This privilege members of higher social classes hold to dominantly make up these schools populations is then converted into individual merit (Fiske & Markus, 2012). Their education means more, and thus they mean more. Even institutions that are considered generally to be less class elitist, such as community or state colleges, are inherently biased to better advantage middle and upper class students. For most members of the working class there is an enormous dissonance between their “cognitive orientation and [the] school[’s] organization” (Fiske & Markus, 2012). Their difference in values, cultural knowledge and life experiences can be isolating factors that prevent them from having access to the same opportunities as their middle class peers. American universities, as well as American society as a whole, places great value on being able to have independent agency (Fiske & Markus, 2012). Students are expected to make their own decisions to follow their intentions and achieve their goals. This model of freedom may not be a familiar mindset for working class students that have grown up in interdependent families that are reliant upon group decisions and consensus. Most colleges offer no or little help in transitioning to this foreign way of thinking, and therefore students are forced to make critical decisions about their education on their own with no prior experience or knowledge. Even when working class students reach out for assistance, they are often met with indifference, confusion, and further isolation. Randall Collins uses the example of students meeting with their school counselor as an example for these class interactions. Being able to establish a shared identity or interest with the counselor determined whether a student would feel encouraged to pursue academic interests or would receive special help (Fiske & Markus, 2012).

These cross-class interactions are critical components of academic success, and therefore also of upward mobility, and yet they are not often considered as skills necessary to learn. However, it is through properly exhibited micro-interactions that class differences can be made up for when building crucial connections that can further advance one’s upward mobility. By growing students cultural knowledge and capital, they are given the ability to begin to catch up with their middle and upper class peers in ways that go beyond what traditional education has to offer. Increasing the success of cross-class interactions is an essential and unavoidable step towards upward mobility, however it is important to note that building this form of knowledge is a journey of catching up with unequal starting lines and therefore it can only go so far.

The story of Della Mae Justice embodies the reality that education can only bring a person to a certain extent on the path of upward mobility (The New York Times, 2005). Despite having moved from a working class environment to a middle class one at a young age and having gone to both college and law school, she still felt as if she did not belong to her new environment. She, like many others in similar positions of upward mobility, found that although she acquired the cultural and social knowledge of the middle class she continued to feel uncomfortable in that environment. As Pierre Bourdieu, it is as if they have learned a new language in that they “will always lack the ease and fluidity of native ‘inhabitants’ of [the middle] class” (Fiske & Markus, 2012). She received her formal education, gained cultural knowledge, made the connections, and got the higher paying job. However, as Justice points out “class is everything” and it is “far too much to make up in one lifetime” (The New York Times, 2005). Social class forms the entirety of our environments, backgrounds, and experiences, and therefore it is impossible and unreasonable to assume that by obtaining a degree all these factors can be compensated for. The description of social class as a continuum offers an illuminating analogy of the reality of what it takes to make progress up the social ladder. It is movement that is slow and offers a new starting point for each new generation to continue the catch up. Education is an integral component to this progress, but it is not the only one.

To summarize, the pursuit of higher education is regarded as the key to success when it comes to advancing social class in the United States, and it is critical to recognize the marginalizing and elitist origins of this philosophy. The reality is that educational systems are not fair or equal in any regard. The U.S. must address how education can be viewed as “the great equalizer” when it has a different starting point for everyone that approaches it. Of course it is true that higher education is a step in the ladder of upward mobility, but it is necessary to recognize that it is just that, a step. Other significant components of social class, such as the improvement of micro- interactions and cultural knowledge, need to be examined and considered to have equal importance to education. Additionally, the lack of equal opportunity when it comes to pursuing an education needs to be recognized and addressed on a national scale. Public funding of education should be made a priority, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, because it is through “investing in the people” through means of higher education that economic and social growth is made possible (Kornbluth, 2013). America must confront the harsh truth that the “American dream” in the current state of upward mobility opportunities, is no longer possible. Only when it is fully recognized that this society’s values are conflicting with its current reality, can this social change be made possible. Until then, educational institutions will continue to be an uncertain factor in an unpredictable cycle of social class.