Chasing the Dream

To better understand the student experience, navigate across these themes to hear from students who have shared their stories with us.

Chasing the Dream

Seeking a college education often is intertwined with deeply personal dreams about what they want their life to be. A student’s "dream" may be very specific or very broad and frequently changes over time and with experience. In marketing themselves, colleges and universities often play to students’ loftiest dreams as a means to entice them to apply. In some cases, students follow a dream to school only to discover that their aspirations do not align with campus (or life's) realities. Planning an educational career around personal and emotive components of a dream is important to student fulfillment, but may also drive a student to ignore more practical concerns that significantly effect their ability to attain a degree.

Winston, Technical School Student
Many students have lofty, impractical career dreams and have no clear path to achieve them. Winston, who is from Jamaica, is a great example of a student who has a passion for entrepreneurship but is unclear about what it really means and how to find the right resources in his current environment to move forward.

chasing the dream

Students dream big and spend a lot of time working on those dreams. We talked with many students who must balance their dreams for the future against day-to-day responsibilities like work and family. For many, this means a lot of late and lonely nights. Read more


Awareness of Economic Opportunity

A student’s dream for the future is closely tied to his or he awareness of their economic opportunity and the cost/benefit equation associated with school choice. Students from families where educational attainment was most overtly tied to economic mobility were almost always better at making school choice decisions that balanced their inner aspirations with practical concerns. These students reported being concerned about the implications of borrowing. Students less attuned to the relationship between educational attainment and economic status were more likely to cite whimsical rationales for their choices (i.e., my friends like it there, I heard they are a good school, I will make money when I graduate if I go there, etc).

Jason, Technical School Student
Jason realizes that he does not want to be a construction worker for the rest of his life; and that school is a gateway to achieving a fulfilling career.


Buying the Dream

When they enroll, students "hire" a school to help bring a dream alive, whether that dream is to be cool, smart, and rich or to become an architect, teacher, nurse, etc. Student dreams may be deeply inspirational or practical, such as "get me a stable job," "make my family proud," and "help me stop being a loser." When selecting a school most students are unable to precisely articulate their dream, but they are attracted to marketing pitches that suggest a school can make any dream come true. Schools play on the anxiety and desire wrapped up in choosing a school.

"I wanted to go to school to stop being a loser," —Rebecca, 19, full time student

Mame, Undergraduate Student
Mamé moved from Senegal two years ago. In Senegal, she attended a good high school where she took advanced courses. Her mother always encouraged Mamé to surround herself with friends that are ambitious and take school seriously. Her mother also encouraged Mamé to dream big by providing her with information about prestigious schools in the U.S. Mamé had started college in Senegal by the time her father, who had been living in the U.S. for over a decade, brought her to the U.S. Because of the differences in school systems, none of the credits Mamé earned in Senegal transferred. Mamé also discovered how expensive prestigious American schools are. They no longer were the option her mother had made them out to be. Mamé’s process for choosing her current college was less of a process than it was chance. Her dad drove her to the community college, took a tour, and signed her up the same day. She likes school and has aspirations to transfer to a four-year university. Because her father is ill, she is not determined to find the best school, but rather to find one close to home.


Understanding Realities

Americans are indoctrinated with the idea that they must go to college to succeed. Before the 1950s, 20 percent of high school graduates went on to college and today 65 percent do. The increase in college enrollment also reflects changes to our economy, wherein it is increasingly difficult to make a living wage without some post secondary education. The urgency in the mantra "go to college" pushes many students to select a school or an educational path without sufficiently considering options, opportunities and the realities of cost. Through marketing, students are sold the idea that schools are a place of altruistic learning and places where administrators strive to give a great education to every student. What students often find is that colleges are businesses, where teachers and administrators are often at odds and funding for student offerings limited. Many students find the difference between the dream and the reality of their experience startling.

"I thought they were on my side, but it [college] was just a business," — Megan, 24, student

Doris, Undergraduate Student
Doris exemplifies the notion that “college entry” does not always correlate to “degree attainment”. Graduating can seem a distant, uncertain goal for some students.

Grace, Undergraduate Student
Grace questions the value of a degree and seeks helps from her network.

“I am getting the same education now as the class of 2000. The technology I guess, in certain fields grows, but it’s the same type of learning environment, the same type of teachers. I understand costs going up overtime but to raise tuition that much by every year, why does it cost this much?” Kaytie, Undergraduate


Working in the Dark

Schools have all the access to quality and cost information, where students have very little. Students have trouble being smart customers and there are few resources that provide them with insight into the quality of their educational experience. When asked how to judge the difference in quality between two or more programs, no students under the age of 30 could answer. Most had not even considered it. So what are students being sold when they make their school selection? A dream. Where do they get information? From schools either directly or indirectly. Most school selection databases focus on the most popular brand names and others are not exhaustive enough. Students are left with very little quantitative data to consider as they balance their “dream” with their options.

"They called me first and made me feel like they wanted me," —Winston, Undergraduate Student

Kayla, Undergraduate Student
Kayla chose her dream school with no clear selection criteria and little research.

"Some of the most critical information around the college search process does not land in the hands of students," — Don Fraser, Director of College Access and Transition, The Met School