Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality is a quite remarkable new work of ethnography, by sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton. I recommend it unreservedly for student professionals, or anyone interested in how university affects social mobility.
Embedded in a women’s dormitory at a large, unnamed Midwestern flagship state university (which, if I had to guess, is probably either Indiana or Illinois), the authors observed the girls on one floor for a year, and then conducted regular follow-up interviews with them for another four years. The results are fascinating, in a horrifying sort of way.
The authors advance an argument that the culture of partying – specifically fraternity/sorority (or “Greek”) partying – is the key factor determining long-term success in college. Rich kids can live the Greek life through a combination of massive parental subsidies and a proliferation of “business-lite” degrees, and their job prospects aren’t diminished because their success in post-graduation job searches depends much more on parental connections than it does on academics. Their less-wealthy, and less-networked peers can either attempt to keep up (which can lead to much higher debt and/or reduced academic achievement, which hurts them more than their better-networked peers) or they end up feeling alienated and alone, which also has negative effects on completion rates.
The authors’ most interesting claim is that flagship public universities actively aid and abet the partying culture, both by providing the Greek system with legitimacy/prestige and by dumbing-down the curriculum with too many “business-lite” degrees. (I’m usually skeptical about “dumbing-down” arguments, but some of this stuff shocked me – karate and ballroom dancing as for-credit courses?) Almost without exception, the kids in this book who studied hard turned out fine; the problem is that too many students are either distracted by other things, or not given institutional encouragement to study the right things.
Two small caveats about this book, though. The first is that its arguments for state-level public policy change are much weaker than the ones it makes for campus reform. Asking for more public funding because students party too much, and don’t study enough, just isn’t going to sell.
The second, simply, is that this is an American book. Much of the really nasty stuff documented here occurs in Canada only in a very attenuated fashion. The Greek system is less important here than it is in the US, and our class systems are different, too; so one shouldn’t assume the arguments translate directly. Still, Armstrong and Hamilton’s message about how social class affects the pathways one takes in higher education, and how they affect post-graduation experiences, is nevertheless a very important one; we should all pay much closer attention than we currently do.