My elementary school history classes stuck mostly to the facts. George Washington was the first president. Christopher Columbus discovered America. Martin Luther King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. There was one abstract idea that I remember being presented again and again, though — the concept of the American dream: With enough work, anyone, no matter his or her background, could rise to the top and achieve unbounded financial success.
Education was always presented as a way to work toward achieving this American dream. The great equalizer, they called it. Elite universities like Princeton offered a clear path toward the American dream: a world-class education that opens up countless career opportunities and the type of financial aid packages that allows anyone to afford it — an incredible opportunity for low-income students. For those who get in, that is. One thing my teachers neglected to tell us was that it was impossible for everyone to live out this American dream.
I was fortunate enough to get the chance that many other equally capable low-income students did not — a chance to climb the socioeconomic ladder and go after that American dream that had been presented to me all my life. And when I found out I’d been accepted, everyone around me sensed that. “You’re going to be set for life,” I remember one of my friends saying. A family friend who was originally excited about the possibility of me going elsewhere conceded that Princeton was probably the right decision given the salary prospects that the Ivy League offers after graduation.
To most of the people around me, acceptance to Princeton was my golden ticket to a lifestyle of wealth. There was an assumption from people back home that upon graduation, I would trade in my diploma for a nice big pile of money and that would be that. Things didn’t go so smoothly when I revealed I was majoring in psychology, the very definition of uselessness for many of them.
It has been my experience that most people from low-income areas have an extremely instrumental view of education. Education is good because it leads to better jobs, and better jobs mean more money. And in most low-income circumstances, this makes a lot of sense. All my friends from home who go to college major in something very practical: engineering, business, pre-law, pre-med. A lot of this, I think, is because they really don’t have much of a choice. Low-income students who attend universities that lack the type of financial aid that Princeton provides have to justify the high costs of tuition by choosing a path that will likely lead to a profession in which they will make a decent amount of money. Princeton’s no-loan financial aid program removes this burden from its low-income students, and there is no longer as much of a financial barrier for choosing a path that won’t necessarily make you a millionaire.
But just because this financial barrier is gone, or at least diminished, does not mean there is no unique pressure for low-income students at Princeton to choose a path that will lead to very well-paying jobs. It’s still very easy to feel like you’re wasting some huge, unique financial opportunity if you choose a major or a future career that is not wildly lucrative. There are many more capable students than there are spots on Princeton’s acceptance list, which means that countless qualified, hardworking low-income students are not getting their shot to have a top education without the threat of looming debt. And many of these students would seize the opportunity of a Princeton education to propel themselves as far up the socioeconomic ladder as they could go.
So is a low-income student who chooses a less practical major spitting in the face of the American dream? As it stands now, maybe. But that’s because there is too great of a financial emphasis put on the American dream. We’re given examples like Andrew Carnegie when we think of someone who lived out the American dream. Did he make some revolutionary scientific discovery or write a great American novel? No, he made a lot of money. What the American dream and the teachers who present it should really emphasize are the options. An elite education opens doors to financial success, yes, but also to all sorts of other opportunities like careers in nonprofit work, research and other areas that don’t necessarily correlate with outrageously high salaries. While low-income students do have a chance to effectively trade in their diploma for a bag of money, as people back home assume they will do, a Princeton education opens many more doors than just that of financial success. It is important to consider these opportunities as well.
Richard Daker is a sophomore from Evergreen Park, Ill. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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