Notes on Paying for the Party

Paying for the PartyPaying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality is a powerful, carefully researched, and ultimately furious work of social science. Its target is higher education – specifically, how female students make it through large public research universities, and how they don’t. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton conclude that such campuses are doing a bad job for many students, and break this down meticulously.

The book is based on research conducted on a group of students attending “Midwestern University” (Ohio State, maybe?). The authors spent a great deal of time with 45 or so undergraduate women, living for part of a year on their shared dorm room floor. The resulting book is rich with conversations, analysis, and as much longitudinal followup as time permitted.

Armstrong and Hamilton identify a series of pathways students can take through the university experience. These include pathways based on partying, mobility (increasing class status), and professional attainment (getting skills for a specific job).  The authors follow each young woman through their track or tracks.

Each campus track collaborates with non-academic partners, but it’s the Greek system that looms largest in Paying for the Party. Fraternities and sororities ground the party pathway, a tightly focused social environment that students can dive into which emphasizes fun, hooking up with wealthy people, and low academic achievement. This isn’t news to many people, especially in academe, or to myself, but it’s rare to see it researched in such detail.  One key observation is a link between frats, sororities, race, and class:  “Greek organizations… [pair] like with like, or, in this case, affluent white women with affluent white men.” (16)

The studied dorm floor group actually split in two. One half went Greek; the other had no comparative social affiliation. The researchers dubbed the latter “isolates” (96), while the Greeks called them “the Dark Side”.  The Greeks also had an acronym for them, which I can’t recall.  I think it had to do with independence.

Instead of summarizing the entire book much further, let me highlight some key points.

First, Armstrong and Hamilton argue that these universities are very biased in favor of the 1% in the way they structure these pathways:

We argue that how Midwest University and many other large state schools currently organize the college experience systematically disadvantages all but the most affluent… (3)
[T]he party pathway was a viable route to success for only a small, highly affluent segment of the MU population. (147)
It is damning that not one of the working-class students graduated from MU in five years. It is instructive that they had to leave in order to graduate… (179)

One reason for this is that the party pathway requires serious financial resources to make it work (217).  Another involves careful and competitive class stratification among these young women in many ways: clothing, romantic strategies, sexuality, career goals.  This sorting out occurs over time, advancing quickly and through reinforcement.

sorority party

If that class stratification sounds to you like the opposite of American universities’ mission, you’d be correct, as far as Paying for the Party is concerned.  The book deems MU a failure as an economic mobility engine. “With the exception of one case… women who stayed at MU were on track to land roughly in the same class location from which they started.” (216)

In fact, the best path forward for some of these women involved exiting the university. Leaving MU and downshifting to a less prestigious, more regional campus ended up being a great move for many of the study group’s women (176ff). This flies in the face of most American thinking about higher ed as hierarchy, which sees national and international institutions as both reputationally impressive and personally beneficial.

As one reviewer put it,

If you are a low-income prospective college student hoping a degree will help you move up in the world, you probably should not attend a moderately selective four-year research institution. The cards are stacked against you.

Second,  Paying for the Party outlines a very important generational shift in terms of romance and marriage.  At MU young women tend not aim for an Mrs. degree. Instead they work towards a career-oriented degree, then set up that career before and after graduation.  Only then do they select a husband, generally. Hence the hookup culture and a practice of uncommitted relationships. What a major shift this is!

Third, Armstrong and Hamilton describe an interesting link between gender and academic fields.  Many of the women (96%!) in this population avoided STEM fields, which, while being an extreme case statistically, does echo the general problem of women being underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math. (70)  Related to this is that being a nerd appeared to these women as a hugely different career and self path. Paying for the Party is very positive about nerdery, and yet it’s scarcely available to any of these young women.  We don’t read of much anti-nerd or anti-geek hostility; this is just an inaccessible avenue that’s not really present. I wish we’d heard more about why not. (149-152)

Along these lines MU created and sustained many lighter academic fields. Armstrong and Hamilton are pretty up-front about the relative ease of MU’s classes in communication, human development, sports management, and fashion studies.  The reason for these major?  To support students on the party pathway. (72)  They can then enjoy themselves without working very hard.

Fourth, parental roles are hugely influential, but not in the mode of helicopter parenting.  Those roles include offering extensive pre-college advice, guidance through majors and career choices while on campus (parents seeming more effective than advisers!), providing financial support during college, ditto after college, and helping the women with relationships. This isn’t helicopter parenting, but something far more extensive.  It reminds me of K-12, actually.

Paying for the Party returns to the parenting theme in every section.  Energetic parents who fulfill all of those roles tend to be wealthy, and their progeny tend to be very successful in school, career, and love.  Other parents fail to do all of that for various reasons, some tied to class (i.e., parents not having gone to college), and their daughters tend to perform less well, or just badly.  This has major implications for the way we structure undergraduate education.

Fifth, as a large institution, MU didn’t manage to integrate disparate populations into a single learning community. This was partly due to size, but seems to also have been a matter of deliberate strategy: “The size and diversity of student bodies at MU and similar schools make [creating a unified learning community] a challenge. We did not observe an effort on the part of MU to do so.” (228)  This isn’t shocking news, especially to anyone who attended a large university (I’m a University of Michigan grad), but it connects powerfully with the fate of these women.  Those who succeeded felt well connected to a specific subculture on campus, rather than to the whole.  Those who did not often described being lonely, isolated, and unaware of better-fitting social worlds.

Ovrall, I’d recommend Paying for the Party to anyone interested in higher education, especially on topics of gender, class, and access. It’s an extremely important work to consider during our times, when we consider education reform.

(I published an earlier version of these notes at Goodreads; photo by araza123)

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7 Responses to Notes on Paying for the Party

  1. I saw you were reading this during your big snow storm. It is fascinating material. It seems like information I could have used as my parents sent me off to college–the first person in either family to ever do such an outlandish thing. They sent me to an ag school, WSU, because we didn’t know there was any difference in universities. By the time I figured out the Greek vs Independents paths, I was at the University of Washington and graduating with a degree in English literature because I quite literally didn’t know American Literature was a separate degree. I was so disoriented by that time that I spent the next twenty years in the first spiritual community to scoop me up off the pavement (which I have never regretted–best education I ever had–but it could have been Jonestown for all I knew–I just got lucky).

    I now get constantly and intensely involved in my students’ lives to give them what guidance I can as they come in out of the woods like I did and start navigating these tricky waters (University of Oregon/Lane community college complex). All of the factors you summarize are very much in play here–class, race, gender, all are at issue in substantial addition to their academic work loads.
    They are endemic, and I don’t see change even remotely in the offing.


    • Thank you for sharing your story, Sandy. That’s in the spirit of the book. (And I’m beyond glad you avoided Jim Jones)

      Do you think the current academic climate will foster more teachers like you, deeply involved in students’ lives?


  2. Pingback: Notes on Ivory Tower | Bryan Alexander

  3. Umanja Twoed says:

    I’d say this was Miami University of Oxford, Ohio. the “MU” would make sense, as would the party culture.


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