Liberal Education

From the Editor

When contemplating whether higher education can “recapture the elusive American Dream,” it’s worth considering—as visitors to the website for AAC&U’s 2018 annual meeting were prompted to do—how historian James Truslow Adams described the phenomenon in 1931: “The American Dream . . . is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”1

Key aspects of Adams’s original vision—including its basis in societal well-being and its insistence on the dignity of every person—are sometimes lost in modern interpretations of the American Dream that focus on the individual’s quest for financial success.2 Certainly, it’s no wonder that many Americans are concerned about money: growing disparities in wealth and income have considerable consequences for both individual and national economic security.3 And yet, any vision of the American Dream focused only on financial gain—just like any educational program designed merely to produce high earnings among graduates—is incomplete. College should undoubtedly prepare students to participate in the modern economy. It should also prepare them to live their lives to the fullest, and to enable those around them to do the same.

This issue of Liberal Education, showcasing highlights of AAC&U’s 2018 annual meeting, “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?,” examines how colleges and universities are achieving the interconnected goals of advancing students and society. Contributors explore how colleges and universities act as anchor institutions within their communities, how the public discourse surrounding the skills gap can distract from higher education’s most critical work, and how new approaches to teaching and learning can address contemporary contexts. They examine persistent questions about the American right to free speech and envision a broadly inclusive higher education landscape.

Like the annual meeting, these articles make clear that if higher education is to “recapture the elusive American Dream,” it will need to continue articulating the connections between college learning and graduates’ success in the workplace and in life. But it will also need to reclaim and redefine achievement of the American Dream itself—not solely as a matter of private economic success, but as a public good that the people of the United States, buttressed by colleges and universities as educational, economic, and social drivers, create together.


1. James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1931), 404.

2. For more on how the meaning of the American Dream has shifted, see Robert J. Shiller, “The Transformation of the ‘American Dream,’” New York Times, August 4, 2017,

3. Patricia Buckley and Akrur Barua, “Are We Headed for a Poorer United States? Growing Wealth Inequality by Age Puts Younger Households Behind,” Deloitte Insights, March 12, 2018,

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