The American Dream

The American Dream is the belief that any American citizen, native-born or naturalized, who works hard enough, has an equal right and access to achieve prosperity and happiness, regardless of where or into what circumstances they were born. This set of ideals – which includes notions of individual rights, freedom, democracy, and equality – are often operationalized through the pursuit of a college degree. The American Dream is the belief that through hard work and perseverance, anyone can rise “from rags to riches”, becoming financially successful and socially upwardly mobile.

Challenges experienced pursuing the American Dream

It is no secret that students of color and immigrant students face significant challenges that threaten to derail their academic pursuits. These challenges are reflected in national statistics that suggest white students outpace their racial counterparts in academic degree attainment in an unbalanced way. Balancing degree attainment is essential to eliminating income and racial inequality. However, Metter (2014) reveals that our system of higher education not only fails to mitigate inequality but it exacerbates it. For example, with reference to college graduation, 97% of students from the highest income groups attain college degrees in comparison to 23% from the lowest income groups.

A disproportionate degree persistence rate suggests there is a segment of the population that is pursuing the American Dream from the margins. Students pursuing higher education from the margins are doing so while facing significant financial hurdles coupled with enormous pressure to succeed and threats of crushing debt. To overcome such obstacles students in the margins are often carrying extra workloads to alleviate the financial burden placed on their families. Some struggle with feelings of inadequacy while outwardly projecting to the world they belong to. Still, others find themselves enrolled in universities with the only certainty being that “there is nothing back home, so the pursuit of the American Dream is what I should do.”

Now What

  1. Why do marginalized students have educational experiences that appear to be more literal, rather than critical, more simplistic, rather than complex, and more routine, rather than an adventure? 
  2. Without being intellectually engaged marginalized students are not truly prepared for the culture of academe in colleges and universities so what might we do to reach these students?
  3. What structures, systems, policies, pedagogies, etc. might need to be modified to improve the educational experience for students operating from the margins?  


Burke, J. Bruce & Johnston, M . (2004). Students at the Margins: Searching for the American Dream in Higher Education. Race, Gender & Class (Towson, Md.), 11(3), 19–35.

Mettler, S. (2014). Degrees of inequality: How the politics of higher education sabotaged the American dream. Basic Books (AZ).