Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality
Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton
This important, provocative ethnographic study examines how college exacerbates class differences rather than offering a pathway for social mobility. Armstrong and Hamilton follow a group of young women through a flagship Midwestern University as they attempt to balance their social and academic lives. The authors took up housing in a women’s floor in a residence hall to conduct an ambitious five-year ethnographic study. Initially the study was framed as an attempt to understand college as a site where young women learn about sexuality. Instead, it developed into a study of how institutes of higher learning perpetuate social stratification.
Armstrong and Hamilton distinguish three pathways by which students move through a university. The professional pathway fits ambitious students from privileged families and rests on competition cultivated in high school. Students with AP credit skip the big introductory university classes to take the smaller seminars with more intensive faculty contact. Students aiming for a professional career also search out leadership positions in student or philanthropic organizations. The mobility pathway caters to students of diverse social backgrounds, pointing them to majors connected to specific jobs such as nursing, accounting, or teaching. This pathway depends on academic engagement and social integration but not on heavy partying. The partying pathway indulges students who are interested in a fun, party-filled college experience with few academic demands. Universities accommodate these students with easy majors, ways to opt out of challenging course requirements, and schedules compatible with partying. The “fun” aspect of the party pathway is often delegated to fraternities and sororities, which provide their members with alcohol, partners for hooking-up, and a demanding schedule of meetings and activities.
The book develops the third pathway. Although the authors note that, “extremely affluent students with middling academic credentials are the ideal candidates” (p. 15) for the party pathway, students from other backgrounds—especially underprepared students of underrepresented groups in academia—also end up partying their way through college. These students stress about making the best impression during rush and adjusting their course schedule to accommodate a demanding social calendar. While the wealthy students rely on their parents to bail them out after graduation with an internships at a Fortune 500 company and a condo in the city, the less-advantaged students swept up on the party pathway leave college indebted with low GPAs in worthless majors (such as “event planning”). Armstrong and Hamilton observe that when these students transfer to community colleges with less developed party pathways, they end up doing better.
The authors put some of the blame for the party pathway on the way public universities respond to cutthroat institutional competition. The party pathway demands institutional spending on extracurricular activities such as football and basketball teams that leads to higher tuition for the entire student population. Channeling students to the mobility or professional pathway instead requires an investment in academic advisors, counseling, and professors to attend to the less well-prepared students.
Paying for the Party is a game changer in the sociology of education but also breaks new ground for sociologists interested in gender, class, and social stratification. The book takes issue with the self-congratulatory argument that higher education is an engine for social mobility worth billions of dollars in financial aid. Instead, this book reveals the collateral damage of public universities chasing the wealthiest students at a time of retrenchment of state funding for higher education.