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Kai Ryssdal:There's probably a pretty specific set of images that pops into your mind when you hear the phrase "The American Dream." A house in the suburbs. A steady job. A better future for your kids. At the very least, this recession has made Americans a little less sure about whether they can ever have that dream. So we're going to spend some time this week looking at how it might be changing.
For years, a college education was the first stepping stone to a well-paying job and a bright future. Today as we begin our series "The Next American Dream," we head to California State University Long Beach, where more than a third of the students are the first in their families to go to college. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner tells us that college stepping stone isn't as rock-solid as it used to be.
SARAH GARDNER: Hector Torres grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, watching his parents and other Mexican immigrants toil in California's multibillion-dollar farm industry.
HECTOR TORRES: And for me to live through that and see generations and generations get stuck at the same level, at the same job, it motivated me to know that I can step away from that.
Torres did step away. He's now a sophomore majoring in microbiology. Torres was valedictorian at his high school and won a prestigious scholarship to Cal State Long Beach. But when he arrived on campus, he immediately sensed he needed to up his game.
TORRES: It's a very big campus. And I thought about it. If I'm competing here, I wonder what's the level of competition in a private university? I have to be on top of everything.
Torres is right to be worried. College tuition is going up, job opportunities are down, and more Americans are going to college now than ever before.
Employers today have the luxury of choosing the 4.0's over the 3.5's. Torres says he plans to take an extra year to get his degree so he can keep up his grades. He says he's reading and studying more than he did his freshman year, and he talks about needing "that extra edge."
TORRES: I think in order to now have a strong resume and go into the workforce . . . at least a master's. Because now a bachelor's doesn't make it anymore.
Turns out Torres is right. And he's wrong.
A B.A. still makes it in the sense that college grads earn about 75 percent more than high school graduates. That's called the college wage "premium."
Patrick Callan is president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
PATRICK CALLAN: Never before has education beyond high school been so important to the American Dream.
But that college premium is high partly because the earnings of the folks who don't go to college are so low. Economists say a bachelor's degree is is no longer the ticket to middle-class security that it once was. And the college wage "premium" has actually plateaued over the past eight years.
MIT's David Autor says technology and globalization may be eroding the value of some college-level jobs, like accounting, stockbroking and sales.
DAVID AUTOR: Many types of even low-level positions, some of them can actually be done by computers and others can be done in other countries. So some of those things may actually be putting some pressure on the wages of moderately skilled college grads.
PhD's, doctors and lawyers, on the other hand, are doing fine. But not everyone's cut out for graduate studies or med school.
Cal State Long Beach knows this and tries to advise its students on how to get that extra edge with a B.A. alone.
Marilee Samuelson is head of academic advising here. She counsels kids to hone their writing and speaking skills, take internships, and add what she calls "meat" to their degrees.
MARILEE SAMUELSON: We want them to do minors, and we want them to do certificates. So, as an example, if we're talking to an art major, we might suggest that they do a marketing minor. Or a philosophy major, we might say that human resource management might be a good minor for them.
So, a graduate conversant in Plato and collective bargaining.
And those certificates she mentioned? Those are sort of real-world electives, like technical writing.
Melvin Lopez is among those taking Samuelson's advice.
MELVIN LOPEZ: I'm 20 years old and I'm majoring in criminal justice with a minor in communications.
Lopez works part-time to help support his parents. Both are from El Salvador. He grew up in a neighborhood scarred by gangs and drugs, and now he dreams of law school and a career as a prosecutor.
LOPEZ: There's a lot of people from the neighborhood I come from that, they're comfortable with where they're at. They don't see that they need to better themselves or live, how do you say, more like a stable life. I see myself, you know, living a more productive life.
(INSTRUCTOR: Once upon a time there were three little pigs . . .)
Lopez is taking a storytelling class to cultivate his speaking skills. Prosecutors, after all, have to think fast on their feet and tell a good story. Today, he gets to play the bad guy in a fairy tale improv.
LOPEZ and CLASSMATE: I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down. . . .
Lopez hopes his communications minor will broaden his opportunities after graduation, just in case he can't swing law school.
LOPEZ: "If law school doesn't work out, I've thought about maybe doing some counseling. 'Cause, you know, there's always the need to have counselors and stuff like that.
Well, maybe in a good economy, anyway. Lopez is optimistic things will turn around, but he's also a realist. He's keeping his American Dream in check.
LOPEZ: I hope to have a house and live a stable financial life. I'm not planning on being filthy rich or anything like that. But I just want to live a life where I don't have to worry about the things that my parents have had to worry about.
Things like paying medical bills and next month's rent.
In Long Beach, Calif., I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.