After a five-year study of a flagship Midwestern public university, sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton found that the social and academic infrastructure of the school seemed to prioritize a particular type of affluent, socially oriented student. A “party pathway”—built around an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of each other—was impossible to avoid, and for students who couldn’t or wouldn’t join the fun it served as a constant reminder of their place as outsiders. Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality exposes the unmet obligations and misplaced priorities of public universities whose students leave college with so little to show for it. Below, the authors contrast the experience of thriving on the party pathway with the far more common experience of being failed by it.
Naomi and Karen started college the same year at a mid-tier public university in the Midwest. They lived on the same residence hall floor and shared a taste for partying. Both majored in sports broadcasting. Neither performed well academically, earning GPAs below 3.0. Yet Naomi graduated in four years, moved to New York City, and quickly secured a desirable entry-level job in a media firm. Karen, on the other hand, had changed her major to education, transferred to a regional branch campus, and was struggling to graduate within six years.
In an era of skyrocketing tuition and concern over the value of college, these divergent outcomes matter. In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, we trace a dormitory floor of fifty-three women, including Naomi and Karen, from the day they arrived on campus to a year after they were slated to graduate. The women were similar in many respects; however, they came from a wide range of social class backgrounds.
Based on this research we argue that how this university—and many other large state schools—organizes the college experience systematically disadvantages all but the affluent. The university supported a robust “party pathway”—a social and academic infrastructure with a powerful Greek system at its heart, and an array of easy majors on offer. Naomi—an out-of-state student whose father owned a successful business—was well served by the party pathway. Karen—a middle-class woman from in-state—was not.
Naomi and Karen—like one third of the incoming freshman class—were assigned to a “party dorm.” Little partying took place in the heavily-policed residence halls, but party dorms served as a pipeline into the under-aged party scene housed in the Greek system, which both women joined.
Naomi and Karen both partied hard. When asked about the 2.45 GPA she earned one semester, Naomi attributed it to hooking up, going out a lot, and “just being lazy.” Karen started college as an elementary education major. By her sophomore year, Karen’s social life had taken a toll on her grades: “I did really bad in that math class, the first elementary ed math class.” She switched her major from education to sports broadcasting, following the example of an affluent, socially-oriented floormate. Karen explained, “I would have never thought about that. And so I saw hers, and I was like that’s something that I really like…. I could be a sportscaster on ESPN.”
Karen’s experience underscores the allure of “easy majors,” which are associated with a high GPA and low levels of learning. Other examples include communications, fashion, tourism, recreation, and numerous “business-lite” majors. These majors allow students time to socialize. Career success depends largely on traits developed outside the classroom, such as aesthetic taste, appearance, and personality, and class-based resources—including family ties to industry insiders.
The parents of wealthy women on the floor made phone calls to land their children plum internships and jobs in big cities. Naomi’s sister assisted her in securing her unpaid summer internship in New York City in a high profile media firm. Naomi’s parents paid the bills for her summer in the city. Lacking such ties, Karen could not even get an unpaid internship with the Triple-A baseball team near her home. Frustrated and worried about the need to relocate for a job, Karen attempted to return to elementary education. Her low GPA forced a transfer to a regional college in her fourth year. Because sports broadcasting classes did not fulfill any of her requirements, it took her six years to graduate.
For Naomi, the academic side of college was so irrelevant that her parents—to whom she talked every day—discovered her major in the graduation program. She suffered no ill-effects of her low academic effort—as her social savvy, network ties, and internship experiences secured her employment after college. She was well aware that her parents could and would support her indefinitely; indeed, they continued to subsidize her rent in New York City. Naomi exemplifies the student whom the party pathway is set up to serve.
The dominance of the party pathway at MU was bad for Karen. The structure of social and academic life was not a good fit for her needs. Her story is illustrative of just how poorly flagship state schools like MU serve many of their students. Far more women resembled Karen than Naomi. Most students need the skills, credentials, and training that college offers.
While the party pathway has always been a part of large public universities, large cuts to state funding for higher education have exacerbated the problem: schools like this one have been forced to raise tuition and recruit students who can pay—particularly those from out-of-state. To remain solvent, mid-tier publics have become even more attuned to the agendas of the socially oriented offspring of the affluent.
The situation is unlikely to change without greater federal and state funding of higher education. Public institutions that are forced to rely on tuition and alumni donations will increasingly cater to the most affluent of students, at the cost of those whom such institutions are thought to serve—that is, in-state residents of modest means. Lacking a large-scale public reinvestment in postsecondary education, we can expect to see continued growth of the chasm between what the majority of today’s college students need and what most four-year public institutions offer.