Unmet obligations, misplaced priorities in higher ed

Examining a social class system that disadvantages the majority

A common notion of college is that it’s a great equalizer—anyone who works hard and applies themselves can achieve a better life.

But Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociologist from University of Michigan, and Laura Hamilton, a professor from University of California, Merced present a different reality in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2013). The authors say that, on today’s campuses, success depends as much on where you’re from and who you know as it does on academic ability.

Armstrong and Hamilton spent five years following a group of women as they navigated a social class system that benefits the affluent and disadvantages the majority. The authors claim this “party pathway” is facilitated by the administration, which, to some extent, has its hands tied when it comes to changing things.

You began researching student sexuality. When and why did the focus change?

Armstrong: Students were telling me things about hooking up and so on, so I was wondering what they were up to. We had focus group discussions, but they didn’t seem to get close enough to what the students were actually doing, which led to us actually moving into a residence hall. Once we got there, however, the class issues started jumping out at us. The experiences of the women, depending on where they came from, were so different.

Hamilton: We realized that our original interest was really connected to social class, too, and these social class processes were driving who was hooking up, who was having pleasurable experiences in the party scene, who was excluded, and who was vulnerable in that scene. We started to see the sex piece of it as just one part a bigger puzzle.

So you hadn’t identified the “party pathway” as part of the original goal?

Armstrong: No. We saw what these people were experiencing and then we tried to make sense of it. In doing so, we looked into how they were intersecting with the university as an organization and what the university was doing—or not doing—to help them realize their goals and ambitions. Then we realized that for some students, the university was systematically a more hospitable and more highly resourced place than it was for others.

Hamilton: Much of the research on higher education studies student experiences, but not the context in which students are having these experiences. We started to see that the university was a big piece of the story and that it made sense to understand student experiences as not just what they bring with them in terms of abilities or interests, but also how that intersects with the environment the university offers.

You wrote that the party pathway is an implicit agreement between the students and the university to demand little of each other. Have you had pushback on that observation?

Armstrong: Not really. Other researchers have noted this kind of disengagement contract between faculty and students. This is particularly true at big research universities, where faculty are under pressure to publish and do research to get tenure and prestige in their disciplines. They arrive at a kind of truce where students don’t ask for much and faculty don’t expect much.

I’d imagine a comment like that would cause families to question what they are spending their money on.

Hamilton: It really should. I’m writing a second book right now, based on the parents of the women in this book. One thing I’m seeing is that, unless they are very highly educated professionals, many parents don’t have a good understanding of how universities work and that most of the business is not actually in educating undergraduates.

Parents put a lot of faith in these schools, particularly in state flagship schools. For the parents of someone from a small working-class town who makes it to the state flagship, there is an assumption of excellence and quality in teaching. They want to believe their child is going to get a lot of attention, a lot of assistance, and the faculty is there for them. When that doesn’t happen they are upset and angry.

I’ve been sifting through my interviews and finding lots of bitterness, anger and frustration with the university. They feel they’ve been swindled and not given what they were told.

A lot of marketing seems to highlight the college experience over academics. Did you find that?

Armstrong: Yes. In some ways all four-year residential schools are about selling an experience, but schools vary in terms of what kind of experience they are selling.

In terms of the campus life experience they are pretty accurate. They say, “There are 27 fraternities on campus and we have the liveliest social events of the year.” That’s pretty on target.

What they don’t tell families is that not everyone is equally included in this social scene, or that if you really dive into this social scene, it could have consequences on how much you are learning and how this can translate in your career or life afterward.

Some of the response to the book, in comments and blogs, really has to do with individual responsibility and people making choices. They say college students are adults, and if they choose to get drunk all the time and not study, they should be free to make that choice.

Hamilton: Sometimes it’s problematic to assume that people make free individual choices, and that the environment has no influence on those choices. Universities shape what choices are easier to make and which are harder to make.

When they land on campus at a school like the one we studied, many students find everything is structured so that they end up at a party. If everyone around you is doing it, if the only way you can make contact and have friends is the party scene, it gets really hard not to participate even if that’s not what you set out to do.

No one wants to wind up alone on the floor eating cereal at midnight.

The book looks at women, who are the larger part of the student population on many campuses, yet they often take a subordinate role to men. The schools seem to be complicit in this.

Hamilton: You have to think about the financial situation that many schools are in right now. If you need students to show up at your door, and you can’t compete for academically talented students who are also really wealthy, you aim for a different constituency.

That constituency is going to have money but be more interested in partying. A lot of these men and women arrive on campus with particular interests that aren’t extremely rigorous or academic, so you have to offer the kinds of majors that they are going to find appealing, like merchandise buying or residential interior design.

One of the really popular majors is sports communication. We found many women who took it wanted to be the kind of pretty blonde, bubbly sportscaster who gets to be behind the scenes with the team. If you don’t have those kinds of majors—and you don’t have the party scene that those students enjoy—then you are not going to attract those students.

Many of the women we studied will eventually end up being wives, so they are going for what we call gender complementarity—I’m going to marry a breadwinner eventually, so I’m just going to be cute and pretty and any career is going to be focused on that, but eventually the man is going to make the money.

Universities may not be really interested in educating women like that, but it is part and parcel of staying afloat right now.

You suggest several ways that schools can dismantle the party pathway. Can you highlight a few?

Armstrong: We do suggest dismantling the Greek system at schools, but reviewers have noted it is unrealistic when sororities and fraternities are so deeply involved in the whole structure of the big universities, from providing housing to providing the social life, and even being part the student affairs structure.

But if schools can push back against the party pathway, things will be safer and more academic. Little things like having classes on Friday can make a difference.

It makes economic sense because the universities’ physical plants would be used more efficiently, and it means a huge cost savings to use classroom space more effectively. It also has a corollary of reducing emergency room visits from excessive partying.

Hamilton: Universities can also try to even out power on campus. The problem with the party pathway now is that it puts the power of the social world effectively in the hands of affluent white men. That causes problems for a lot of people.

If universities would put as much interest in the African-American, Latino, and multicultural fraternities and sororities as they do the white ones, that would help even things out. They need to figure out ways to make sure that all the different student groups on campus have more of an equal voice.

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