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.