The American Dream. At one time, it seemed so well defined: the house, the yard, the 2.5 well-behaved, well-dressed children, the modern car in the one-car garage. A quick Google search described it as a phrase connoting hope for prosperity and happiness, symbolized particularly by having a house of one’s own. It suggests that your children’s economic and social condition will be better than your own.

The articles and surveys today seem to imply that the American Dream is more like treading water. And if the drop in household income (3 percent in just four years) and the growing household credit card debt (more than $9,000) are any indication, the water is winning.

It hasn’t happened overnight. The heat’s been turned up gradually, but if there’s any doubt that times have changed, just look at the recent help-wanted ads offering manufacturing jobs at $10 an hour with no benefits. And by newspaper accounts, there are no shortage of qualified, ready-to-work applicants—many of them college educated.

Somehow, today’s $10 an hour isn’t the American Dream. It’s much more than the minimum wage ($6.50), but not enough to house and feed a family of four without a second paycheck in the family.

Little wonder that while most middle-class Americans say they’re better off than their parents, an even greater number believe they’re better off than their children will be.

In the past, the ticket to a “good job,” complete with benefits and a pension plan, was a college degree. To be sure, college graduates statistically make more money per year than a high school graduate. But the degree has to come with a “hard work” ethic and team spirit attitude—not an entitlement mentality.

It seems mandatory for any article on the subject to feature a college graduate working at a $10-an-hour job. And if college grads are taking those jobs, what kind of jobs are left for the high school graduate or the high school dropout?

Article after article touts the value of a college degree vis-a-vis the alternative. But missing in this discussion seems to be the relative value of different college degrees and experience. While graduates with nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, engineering, computer science, or accounting degrees are connecting with the “Dream,” graduates of other fields of study are the ones taking those $10-an-hour jobs. Today, some skilled as diesel mechanics and plumbers can make six figures, but those with a BA in psychology will get you $10 an hour. I’m glad school counselors are again encouraging skilled trades as a viable option to college, depending on the student’s interest.

There was a time when a college degree was a ticket, period. Today, the pride of sending a child off to college can be tempered when parents learn their offspring’s choice of major or elective courses provides virtually no marketable skills. A lesson of increasing importance to parents and students is that they carefully consider their field of study with its connection to the American Dream well in advance of graduation day. IBI