Higher Ed and the American Dream

January 30, 2018 | | Inside Higher Ed |

Tamara Draut, vice president for policy and research at Demos and author of Sleeping Giant: How America’s New Working Class Will Transform America, said during the plenary that the current backlash against higher education has been directed at public institutions, in the form of decreased funding. Arguing that that has hurt people of color but also working-class white people, Draut said, “We all have to be champions of reinvesting in each other through the public sector.”

Draut grew up in Middletown, Ohio, later made famous by J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. She said she definitely broke the mold in attending college and then graduate school, but that one didn’t have to be “exceptional” to do so at the time. Now, given the cost of going to college, she said she doubted whether her story would be possible.

Debt has “poisoned” the entire college-value debate, Draut said. While debt originally helped institutions show a return on investment for a degree, higher education is now addicted and degree holders of all kinds are loaded with it.

As for the American dream, Draut said society has a dual mission to advance it: help more first-generation students attend college and graduate without debt, but also restore "dignity and decency" to the notion that you don't need necessarily need a degree.

"What a lot of working-class poor people hear us saying is you need to go to college, and the reason you’re struggling is because you didn’t go to college, you made bad choices," she said. "So that’s an important distinction to make, that higher ed is great but it’s not all we have to do to fix society’s inequalities."