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Students vow to chase the American Dream despite new reality

Students seek ways to separate themselves from the pack

Published: Monday, Feb. 4 2013 2:50 p.m. MST

Nelson Warr works as a staff assistant at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Nelson Warr spends his days as a student at the University of Utah maintaining his 4.0 GPA, prepping for Model European Union competitions, serving on the Student Government Relations Board, and spearheading youth voter initiatives and media outreach in his job as a student staffer at the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

It's not just that Warr is passionate about politics. He's also driven by the need to build a resume and separate himself from the thousands of other students who are balancing debt, degrees and the changing job landscape ahead for students.

Students are chasing their own version of the American Dream, said Tim Chambless, professor of Political Science at the University of Utah. And the economic realities of 2013 are making the journey more difficult than before.

“They are hopeful that they can have as good of life if not a better life than their parents,” Chambless said. “They do it because there is a vision, an expectation if you will, that there will be a long-term gain. You’re in debt now, you sacrifice now, with the hope that someday you can have the American dream.”

Still, Chambless warns that the problems graduates face are real. “I have a fear, however, that if we don’t make some major adjustments in the structure of our economy, that this new generation will be the first generation that will have to learn to live with less rather than more.”

The challenges are sobering:

• A Wall Street Journal analysis revealed that among households headed by people with student debt who attended graduate school and are under 35, the average student loan debt climbed to $81,758 in 2010, up from $55,594 in 2007.

• Median wages for those with bachelor's degrees are down from 2000, and half of 2012 college graduates were either jobless or underemployed.

• The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. awarded 126,214 MBAs in the 2010-2011 school year, 74 percent more than in 2000. Some educators and employers are now saying that the growth of MBA programs and the number of graduates is threatening to lessen the value of the degree.

There is demand for engineers and those in the sciences. But those in liberal arts, humanities and other degrees who push on to business school or law school are facing a new economic reality: Education is not just about pursuing a paycheck, but can I really afford to pursue the American Dream the way my parents did?

“I’m going to do what’s most interesting to me,” Warr said. “And looking to my future, I’m sticking to my plan of continuing my education by going to law school.”

The Deseret News sat down with Warr and six other students and advisers and discovered all the students were aware of the challenges, but share a common trait: They are going to do it anyway.

The students

Eric Otto, a sophomore business major at the University of Utah, has dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, but not before he completes internships, gains experience working for a firm and potentially pursues an MBA.

“I think the recession kind of brought the notion home that it’s not as cut and dry as just going to college and getting a job once you graduate,” Otto says. “It takes a lot more now to get employed. You have to get internships and potentially get a graduate degree.”

Erin Brown, a biology student at Westminster College, is trying to get into a top physician’s assistant program. To make her application more competitive, Brown is working to have 2,000 hours of on the job experience working as a certified nursing assistant, despite the 500- to 1,000-hour standard requirement. 

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