This worked for some, though not all. Many students were left with heavy debts and no degree.
A study from economists at the Kansas City Federal Reserve reports: Fewer than 60 percent of college freshmen graduate within 6 years; student debt now totals about $1 trillion; for 25 percent of borrowers, annual repayments exceed $4,584; default rates are almost 9 percent.
"Defaulted borrowers may be sued, tax refunds may be intercepted, and/or wages may be garnished," the report notes.
The plugging of homeownership - the quintessential symbol of "making it" - is another perverse pathway.
True, homeownership is a laudable goal; it stabilizes neighborhoods, for example. But the promotion went overboard. Lax lending standards lured people into buying homes they could not afford, contributing to the 2007-09 financial crisis.
Again, the victims were the intended beneficiaries. Since 2007, at least 5 million Americans have lost homes through foreclosure, reports CoreLogic.
There is nothing wrong with a little over-the-top optimism and hope. It is inevitable and even healthy, if it makes people feel good and inspires them to rewarding behavior.
The trouble with our American Dream infatuation is that it transcends these common-sense boundaries. It has become a substitute for addressing real problems and a collective act of self-deception.
The invocation of the American Dream presumes that there are no conflicts among groups. With the correct mix of personal responsibility and government programs, everyone can achieve the Dream.
But some conflicts cannot be wished away. One is between young and old. As baby boomers retire, federal spending on the elderly will soar.
This will help retirees attain their dreams, while making it harder - through higher taxes or lower public services - for the young to realize theirs.
What also cannot be wished away are on-the-ground realities that impede middle-class status for more Americans.
Only one-third of children born to the poorest fifth of Americans graduate high school with at least a 2.5 grade-point average and without having become a parent or been convicted of a crime, reports a Brookings Institution study.
Brookings economist Isabel Sawhill notes that gaps have widened between the children of poor and well-to-do families on school test scores, college attendance and family formation.
In his book "Coming Apart," conservative scholar Charles Murray makes similar points.
For politicians and pundits, the virtue of the American Dream is that it's disconnected from nasty facts and choices.
It's a slogan that shouldn't survive - but will endure precisely because it's an exercise in make-believe.