President's Column: Chasing the American Dream


“Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” so said historian James Truslow Adams more than 85 years ago. The American Dream, as it is often known, appealed to longtime settlers and newly arrived immigrants alike, “regardless of social class or circumstances of birth,” though, as we know, it was not available to people of all backgrounds. It is why many of us have ancestors who left families and friends in lands far and near to come to these shores.

It’s why my own maternal forebears crossed the Atlantic both before and after the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century to make their home in the neighborhoods of Boston (long before the Red Sox, Celts or Patriots were winning championships!).

Today, however, the economic turbulence of the new millennium is causing contemporary historians and many families to doubt the core value proposition of the American Dream: hard work produces economic prosperity and material success. As economic realities pose genuine barriers to the dreams of countless families, many are less likely to look to higher education as a pathway to advancement. Sadly, the prevailing skepticism reported (and fueled) by the media and public officials about the value of a college degree causes many to forget about the exceptional return on this investment.

Yet whether the economy and family finances are robust or endangered, a college education still matters. In fact, it is still a difference-maker.

And private universities like Alvernia, with historic commitments to being modestly priced places of opportunity for deserving students of all backgrounds, are an often-overlooked national resource. We are inspired to nurture dreams of wonderful young women and men as they explore their talents. We seek to ignite their passions to pursue careers in health care, in social and public service, in business and education, in the communication and fine arts, and in an array of emerging fields. This commitment to educate our students stands in dramatic contrast to prevailing skepticism.

But beneath the rhetoric, high minded and otherwise, what does the data say? Quite simply, that higher education is an invaluable investment.

The average hourly wage for college graduates is roughly double that of non-college graduates: $32.60 an hour for those with degrees, $16.50 an hour for those without. A study from Georgetown University shows that “good jobs” — those paying at least $53,000 annually — contributed nearly half of the new jobs added during the last economic recovery. And 97 percent of those went to guess who? Yes,
to college graduates.

And still other research shows that by 2020, two-thirds of all jobs will require postsecondary education, although — shockingly — today only 40 percent of Americans have attained even an associate degree.

Despite the benefits of investing in education for professional advancement and salary growth, the gap between the supply of workers with appropriate credentials and the jobs requiring degrees expands every year.

Notwithstanding the financial benefits, faculty and staff at Alvernia view the value of a college education in broader terms. Yes, a degree is vital to professional success, measured by the federal government and media types alike almost solely by the level of salary. But we place equal emphasis on education’s potentially transformational impact on personal and social well-being.

For our many graduates in service professions like social work, criminal justice and behavioral health, personal accomplishment is measured less in dollars earned than in lives changed. Our graduates are also serving society regardless of their professions: a recent comprehensive survey confirms that 76 percent of all alumni are active volunteers in their communities.

And humbly, but determinedly, many of our graduates aspire to make a moral impact — to be, as our mission statement challenges them to be, “ethical leaders with moral courage.”

In many cases, they are living lives inspired by vocations as well as career aspirations. Or as the theologian Frederick Buechner has written, they have been called to “the place where [their] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Inspiring our students to do well and to do good is what Alvernia is all about. It is why we do what we do.

Countless Alvernia alumni have found their calling as pillars of change in the world and are answering this challenge. Jennifer Kaucher ’13 — who offers thoughts on the changing climate of addiction in this issue of Alvernia Magazine — is a case in point. It only takes a few minutes of talking with Jennifer about her post at the Council on Chemical Abuse to be inspired by her passion for helping others.

Whether future earnings or a fulfilling life is important to you, consider a new Pew Research Center survey, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” which finds that college graduates outpace those without a degree on virtually every measure of job satisfaction, career success and social involvement.

As reams of research data confirm, college graduates make more money, live healthier lifestyles, and take greater action in civic and social engagement. They vote more. They volunteer more. They’re happier. As a result, the communities in which they live benefit from it all. And, if they are lucky enough to be Alvernia graduates, they are also women and men of conscience and character!

Yes, they are all living the American Dream. And in my book, that’s an excellent return on an investment in an Alvernia education.

Peace and all good,

Thomas F. Flynn