The idea of going to college - and the expectation that the next generation will be better educated and more prosperous than its predecessor - has been hardwired into the ambitions of the middle classes in the United States.Downward mobility haunts U.S. education (BBC)
But there are deep-seated worries about whether this upward mobility is going into reverse.
Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), says the US is now the only major economy in the world where the younger generation is not going to be better educated than the older.
The annual OECD education statistics show that only about one in five young adults in the US reaches a higher level of education than their parents - among the lowest rates of upward mobility in the developed world. For a country whose self-image is based on optimism and opportunity, the US is now a country where someone with poorly-educated parents is less likely to reach university than in almost any other industrial country. And about one in five young adults in the US are now defined in educational terms as "downwardly mobile" - such as children who have graduate parents but who don't reach university level themselves.
When the global story of higher education is so much about rapid expansion and the race to increase graduates, it's almost counter-intuitive to find a powerhouse such as the United States on the brink of going backwards.
It's easy to overlook the dominance of US higher education in the post-war era - or how closely this was linked to its role as an economic, scientific and military superpower. The US had the first great mass participation university system. The GI Bill, which provided subsidies for a generation of World War II veterans, supported three times as many people as are currently in the entire UK university sector. An American born in the 1950s was about twice as likely to become a graduate than in the rest of the industrialised world. As the cars ran off the production lines in Detroit, the graduates were leaving the universities to become part of an expanding middle class.
But the US university system is no longer the only skyscraper on the block. It's been overtaken by rivals in Asia and Europe. Today's young Americans have a below-average chance of becoming a graduate, compared with other industrialised economies.The US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a speech a few weeks ago, asked how the US had in "the space of a generation" tumbled from first place to 14th in graduation rates.
So what's gone wrong?
The spiralling cost of higher education in the United States is often cited as a barrier - and the collective student debt has exceeded a trillion dollars. But Andreas Schleicher argues that a deeper problem is rooted in the inequalities of the school system.
He says that the level of social segregation and the excessive link between home background and success in school is "cutting off the supply" between secondary school and university. The meritocratic, migrant energy in US culture is no longer operating in the school system. "If you lose the confidence in the idea that effort and investment in education can change life chances, it's a really serious issue," says Mr Schleicher.
Why train for a job that doesn't exist? America's higher education system is far more expensive than anywhere else in the world. The American idea is to put yourself in massive debt with no guarantee of a job coming out the other side. Essentially, it's asking a pre-adult without rich parents to gamble with tens of thousands of dolars on the line. And the bill collectors can now do almost anything to get their money back. Oddly enough, this has produced subpar results, and our "leaders" can't seem to see why.
The costs of training to be a useful, productive member of society are entirely borne by the individual because anything else would be "socialism." This is what happens.