Thursday, February 9, 2012

Assessing the American Dream

This semester I am teaching a course that is new to me.  The title of the course is “Assessing the American Dream”, to which I have added the timely subtitle of “Occupy Wall Street”.  In the interest of providing some insights into today’s college students – the leaders of our tomorrow – I am using new technology which allows me to ask questions and receive anonymous feedback on students’ opinions.  In preparation for this work, we’re also trying to append socio-demographic data to their responses to see how students from different backgrounds might reply to key questions.  Thus, I hope to provide a series of “Financial Tips” on the experience.  I believe it will provide readers with some food for thought, throughout the remainder of spring semester.  Today, we will begin with the demographics of the class, followed with their response to a couple of questions connected to our collective futures.


The majority of the students (56%) are from the suburbs, with 16% claiming a rural upbringing and only 13% from an urban core.  Only 62% were born in Missouri, with the remainder of the class being born outside of Missouri.  Surprisingly, none of the class is from overseas.  In their family, 45% are the eldest child with only four of those being the only child in their family.


With respect to their family background, 55% report that their family household income is greater than $100,000.  Including that highest category, 89% of the students reported household income of $50,000 or greater.  (A much greater level of income than what exists in the general population, indicating their parents’ greater ability to pay, or plan for, college expenses, or the greater the motivation of students from these backgrounds to work their way through school.  Twenty-three percent indicate that they receive some form of scholarship to attend MIZZOU, while 70% are full-time students working part-time jobs to help pay for their college years.)  Seventy-nine percent of their mothers and 73% of their fathers attained an associate’s degree or higher, compared to the national average of 49.10% (Wikipedia).  This allows us to conclude that the average University of Missouri student, at least those in this class, come from better educated and greater income households than the country as a whole.


Fifty-seven percent of the students report belonging to one, or fewer, campus organization.  Only 21% belong to a campus Greek social fraternity or sorority.  When asked how often they exercise, 53% reported that they exercise daily, while another 30% exercise weekly.  This is not because they are in church, as fully 64% report going to church once a year or not at all.  The remaining students are split relatively evenly between attending religious services once a week or once a month.  A 2007 Gallup poll indicated that, for all Americans, 55% attend church once per month, or more often.  (I’ve always felt a pull toward church becoming greater, as the final exam comes closer.  I pretty much attend once per week.  I’m cramming.)


It is of interest to note that 25% reported being Democrats, 27% replied that they are Republicans, 23% are Independents, 23% do not vote, and 1% are Libertarians (sorry, Ron Paul).  Analogously, 27% identified themselves as liberal or very liberal and 27% as conservative, with the modal category (46%) reporting being moderate.


The same day we asked them about their confidence in the standing of America in the world and, sadly, 77% reported that it has diminished or that they have lost confidence in our country.  Yet, at the family level, 75% believe that family values are important to the American Dream and 73% continue to believe that the American Dream, as defined by those values, is within their reach, while only 8% believe it to be out of reach. 


One set of questions focused on attitudes toward the tenants of an article by Charles Murray which appeared in the Wall Street Journal.  (See the article here.)  His argument is that the upper class and the lower class are becoming increasingly divided.  He demonstrates support for this gulf in the following areas; marriage, single parenthood, industriousness, crime, and religiosity.   The majority of my students believe we should care about each of these divides, except for religiosity.  Crime was found to be the one where the most students perceive the greatest cultural divide and religiosity the least wide gulf.   Seventy percent of them agree that the cultural divide is real when they are interacting with those of a different social class.  The plurality of the class believes that the best resource available to help bridge the cultural divide is public education (49%), while only 3% see taxing the wealthy as providing the necessary resources to the lower class as an answer.  The preceding assures that debates on government expenditures to be both loud and long.


As we continue to move through the semester, I will try to keep you up to date on interesting findings.  This is not meant to be a “final-say-set” of conclusions about American college students.  It is, simply, a class - a class designed to help our students better know themselves to help them truly find financial success.  It is also imperative, moreover, that they know those who are different from them, as they may have similar clients and, frankly, the mosaic of our country requires each strand to be woven with other strands to create the finished fabric which we call America. 


-          Rob Weagley

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