The Demise of Rugged Individualism- By Doug Wagner


I am the father of two sons, one of which is within two courses of graduating from college, and another who has accelerated his learning path beyond everyone’s expectations. They are both incredibly intelligent, so I realize there is something different in how their passion for education translated from High School to college. And I also know they are not alone.

Studies show that 59% of international students who come to the United States for post-secondary education do not graduate. 44% of Korean students in Ivy League schools do not advance to their second year. Finally, one out of every five students from India who come to the US to study at a degree granting institution do not complete their program , and another two out of that five never achieve their academic goals. Why is this? What separates one student from another, both domestically and internationally?

Researchers have argued about this for years and offer theories of cultural, social and academic differences. But have we examined the effect of modern American academic culture on international students?

I believe that we have observed a degrading of core American educational values, and today’s US-based students do not have a deep enough understanding of what made America and what drives it even today. Surely, there is a modern expectation that our students WILL attend college and they WILL graduate. In my generation, that was hoped for, but not expected. Now, it seems as if there’s an expectation of a provision for such an education, rather than simply an opportunity to have access.

This is a story about Gold, Glory and God, American Rugged Individualism…and international students.

Am I surprised to see this number of dropouts among international students in United States? No. But as a free-market conservative, I am sad about it. What is happening to the new international students coming to the US?

When I visited students and schools in India, both their work ethic and their entrepreneurial spirit impressed me. After visiting some of the best students the world has to offer, I now wonder whether they are not able to get comfortable with the American culture, or, if they are succumbing to the siren’s song of the expectation that the education WILL be provided to them, and they no longer have to earn it.

While both working and attending university, I took on a job and found that I worked 40 hours per week with a full-time schedule of classes. I also found that when I assumed these multiple responsibilities, I paid much more attention to both my work and my studies.

How many of today’s students are working while in school? Are they ready to work 10-20 hrs a week to deliver pizza and then study? The international student may need time to acclimate, but are they then willing to take on a job in addition to their studies to help them to focus as well as broaden their horizons?

I fear the ruggedness of Rugged Individualism might be lost in the current generation, regardless of their nationality. More appropriately, the ruggedness is lost or simply not encouraged. Instead, we imbue our children with an, “You’ll be taken care of,” mentality.

My colleague, Professor Noah Siela entered and completed school much differently than I did. He finished his Baccalaureate in seven years, as after each year he took a break to tend to the family farm, working for an entire year to save enough money for his next year at school. Different paths, but success achieved.

Student loan debt is threatening not only the current generation of American college students, but their predecessors and even those before them, the “Sandwich” generation. These are people taking financial care of both their parents AND their children, and find themselves sandwiched between. This has the capacity to create a catastrophic economic situation, and very few are paying attention to what we, as private individuals, can and should be doing. Instead, they turn to the government in order to have them legislate or mandate the easy way out.

As far as international students are concerned, the question is whether they will fall prey to the modern American educational and financial nightmare of racking up huge student debt and taking a leisurely approach to their post-secondary education. Or, will they harness that entrepreneurial gumption I recognized while in India? Will they step into the fray and positively engage both the social and economic aspects of higher education to become the leaders of the 21st Century? For India’s and America’s sake, I surely hope so.