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The American Dream

I am a native West Virginian.

I am also a first-generation professional school graduate.

Because of the educational opportunities I was granted at WVU, I am living the American dream.

This dream does not seem as accessible for many young people today. Why not?

For the modern era, the secret to a thriving and long life is provided by a loving community, strong personal relationships, a sense of purpose, an abundant mindset, psychological safety and education leading to a great job (an avocation instead of simply a vocation).

For example, the Princeton economists Sir Angus Deaton and Professor Anne Case found that Americans with a four-year college degree experienced an eight-and-a-half-year increased life expectancy benefit compared to those without. Although Case and Deaton did not dig deeper, I suspect the secret benefit of a four-year education is the resilience and personal growth one experiences when faced with navigating his or her independence and enhanced choices of higher-skilled occupations that result from advanced training and professional degrees.

In addition, historically there is a “wage premium” or lifetime earning advantage between Americans with college degrees versus those with high school degrees. This observation started after World War II when a number of veterans were able to gain their college degrees on the GI Bill.

In the early time period as these veterans earned their college degrees, the lifetime wage benefit was about 30%. In other words, veterans with college degrees experienced, on average, 30% higher lifetime wage earnings compared to those without. By the 2000s, the wage premium rose to around 65%, where it remains today.

This path is the story of our family, where my father was able to attend West Virginia University and graduated with a degree in journalism. That event changed his trajectory and mine. He ultimately became editor of the Charleston Gazette and his love for reading and drive for excellence in his profession opened up many doors for me and my brother Sam, a prosecuting attorney.

Advancing our education and gaining professional degrees from WVU allowed us to find jobs that we love and a life that our grandparents could not have seen as a possibility for them or future generations.

Why then has the Gallup polling agency reported that Americans having a “great deal” and “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education has waned from 57% in 2015 to 36% now?

Is this loss of trust in higher education global?


Other countries are seeing increased rates of college admissions from eligible students. For example, Canada has 67% of adults 25-35 years old earning two- or four-year degrees.

Why are we seeing these differences in the United States?

College tuition is getting increasingly expensive. The average total cost to attend a private institution in America is around $58,000 per year and about $26,000 per year at public institutions. With financial aid, the final bill at an average private institution is about $33,000 per year, and at public institutions about $19,000 per year (blending in-state and out-of-state students).

Other countries subsidize education for their population. For example, Canada and Japan provide higher education at about $5000 per year, and Israel, Spain and Italy at about $2000 per year. In France, Germany and Denmark, public education is virtually free.

Student debt has climbed from $500 million in 2007 to $1.6 trillion today. In fact, those who took out student loans from 2010-2019 owe, on average, more than half of what they borrowed.

Assessing the available information gives us insight on how to navigate the higher education conundrum. Prospective students should evaluate the total costs of their education - the less expensive the total costs of college and the lower their debt, the more likely they will be to experience the college wage premium. Students must complete their degrees and choosing an area of focus with higher paying jobs and lack of skilled workers enhances opportunities for the wage premium experienced by college graduates from years past.

Students who have college loans without a degree have the lowest likelihood of experiencing the college wage premium. In addition, many have lost trust in a college degree as a needed pathway to economic and personal success.

In the post-COVID era, there have been a large number of unfilled jobs that increased wages for non-college graduates. This increased wage earned by less skilled workers has transiently reduced the wage premium experienced by college graduates. While these jobs are still available, projections of workforce need points short-term to those with college degrees or skilled trades (like plumbers). Long-term, skilled workers with skills in areas of need will be likely to experience higher wages and more predictable job openings than those without.

The American dream is still the yearning of the last generation to help the next generation succeed with more prosperity and longevity. With the challenges that exist in the U.S., how do we accomplish this?

  • More scholarships and experiential learning where students can earn money to reduce their debt.
  • Help all students complete their degree in as few tuition-requiring years as possible.
  • Help students define their degrees in areas of need where good salaries are available.
  • Create new options with micro certificates and two-year stackable degrees working towards four-year options.
  • Prepare students for the workforce by educating the “whole” person.

What I do believe is that having the opportunity to gain a professional degree and become a doctor changed my life and future. Working together to help our young people see this possibility as their future and realize their own American Dream is a dream we share in West Virginia and at West Virginia University.