Does the American dream still exist?

Indiana State students cash in what one professor describes as a “lottery ticket” and use their college experience to discover their version of the American Dream.

At first glance, the dreams of America’s founding fathers seem simple — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But almost 240 years of hindsight has proven the American dream to be much more and may require extra time and patience to acquire it in the 21st century.

“I would say the American dream is different for everybody and changes all of the time,” said Matt Cohen, instructor of accounting, finance, insurance and risk management at Indiana State University’s Scott College of Business. “My own American dream has evolved since college, from wanting to accumulate wealth to a desire to pursue my passions. I tell students that they’re sitting on a $1 million lottery ticket coming to college, because it’s a great place to discover what their dream is.”

A 2014 national survey by the Center for a New American Dream polled 1,872 people and found six common concepts considered “very or extremely” significant to the American dream: Having personal freedom (78 percent); having basic needs met (75 percent); ability to achieve their potential (71 percent); having enough free time (67 percent); living in harmony with nature (54 percent); and achieving affluence (23 percent).

Jeff Harper

Jeff Harper

A higher education could be the best link to making “the dream” a reality, but a bachelor’s degree alone may not cut it anymore, said Jeff Harper, executive director of graduate programs for the Scott College.

They may need to seek professional certifications, special skills and expertise or attend graduate school, which has led to a new phenomenon that can complicate the American dream for millennials — college debt.

“How many people can actually have everything in their American dream is a complicated question,” Harper said. “There was a time when people didn’t want to go into debt and paid as they went. Today, people finance a lot of things and take on a tremendously heavy debt burden, including significant college debt.”

That’s why senior business management major Tanisha Foutz of Bloomington isn’t waiting until she has her diploma to ensure her post-college lifestyle allows her to afford a family, buy a home, save for her future children’s college tuition, take family vacations and be involved in her community.

“I think most young people don’t tend to think about life after graduation until graduation is a few months away, but I think it’s important to make sure we are always looking to the future to make sure our actions in college will help us land a career and stand out from our competitors,” she said. “For a lot of students, I think they feel college is a time to be wild and party and then, on Sunday night at midnight, study for a final or do homework. It seems boring from an outsider’s perspective that I work or study on Friday night, but I’ll go out on Fridays when I’m done with school and have money to spend.”

Foutz may have found the best avenue for achieving an American dream — good ol’ old-fashioned hard work.

Kim LaGrange

Kim LaGrange

“It’s surely not the most interesting, but being able to outwork the people around you really is an important element of becoming successful, along with an education — something, I think, is even more important now than it used to be if one wants to get ahead,” said Kim LaGrange, instructor of management.

Despite the challenges to obtaining financial success and a decline of the middle class, LaGrange said students she teaches are optimistic the American dream is still theirs for the taking.

“If you were to look at students 20 or 30 years ago, they may have had higher expectations for what they are able to achieve than maybe students today have,” she said. “More so than people who have been in their careers for a while, though, I think students today are more positive about things and hopeful that the American dream is still a reality.”

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