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Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality

reviewed by Erin E. Doran - July 03, 2013

coverTitle: Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality
Author(s): Elizabeth A. Armstrong & Laura T. Hamilton
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674049578, Pages: 344, Year: 2013
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Why do some students leave college primed for success while others, perhaps strapped with debt and an unmarketable degree, leave wondering why they bothered with college in the first place?  Since the financial crisis that hit millennials especially hard started, much attention has been drawn to whether or not college is “worth it.”  In Paying for the Party, Armstrong and Hamilton take a different approach:  They look at the forces at play while students are in college and what implications choices, some made by them and some made for them, have on a group of female students from different classes and how those decisions impact students’ ability to reproduce or overcome class inequality.  

In the introduction, the researchers provide an overview of their five-year longitudinal ethnography and interview study of 47 young women who moved into the “party dorm” at a flagship university in the midwest in the fall of 2005.   The researchers followed most of the students throughout the duration of their time in college, beginning at Midwest University (hereafter, MU). The theoretical model presented in the introduction informs the reader that individual and organizational characteristics as well as class projects were examined in order to draw conclusions about students’ stated goals and post-graduation outcomes.  

Chapter One introduces the women of the study in more detail.  The authors provide information on their class background as well as what measures were used to sort women into different class groups (upper middle class, lower middle class, working class) and divided them into four categories:  the Primed to Party women were generally wealthier and for whom the party reputation of the school was important; the women who fell under Cultivated for Success came to MU with clear academic goals, often with parental help.  The third group called Motivated for Mobility comprised of lower middle class or working class students from rural, sometimes agricultural areas who believed that college education would provide them with upward social mobility.  The final group included those women who chose MU by default.

Chapter One presents the party pathway at MU dominated by Greek life. Armstrong and Hamilton identify other institutional factors that support the pathway including residential life and less rigorous academic programs that enable students to obtain a degree with minimal impact on their social calendars.  Chapter Three discusses Greek life in detail, specifically the process of rushing and the competition these women enter in the hopes of entering their choice sorority.  In Chapter Four, the authors describe the physical layout of the dormitory floor and how the layout contributed to the sorting of the participants.  Often, those women who entered sororities together or ran in the same social circles moved closer together, effectively shunning the women who did not fit in with similar ease.

The subsequent three chapters identify the women operating within the party, mobility, and professional pathways, respectively.  The “socialites” described in Chapter Five were often young women from upper class backgrounds with a great deal of social capital who fell into the party pathway with ease.  MU was more about the social experience than academics, and the pathway was often supported by financial support from their parents and by MU itself with easy majors.  Post-graduation, family connections, charm, and social graces opened doors for the socialites rather than grades.  The wannabes experienced a bumpier time trying to fit into the party scene—they rushed into lower regarded sororities, they struggled to keep up with the financial demands of their lifestyle, and floundered academically.  Upon graduation, they were stuck with student loans, unmarketable degrees or low GPAs, and without connections to help them establish careers.  

On the mobility pathway discussed in Chapter Six, Armstrong and Hamilton found only one participant who successfully navigated through this path, in large part due to a process termed “creaming.”  MU identified Valerie, a promising student who was provided financial assistance and institutional resources to facilitate her success.  Due to these extra opportunities, Valerie left primed for graduate school.  Others on the pathway struggled with issues such as the need to work through school, enrollment in remedial courses, selecting good majors, fitting in with their peers, and demanding (even abusive) relationships.  The researchers found that seven of these students on this pathway left MU for regional campuses where they often fared better academically.

In Chapter Seven, the authors liken the professional pathway to a tightrope, one that some successfully walked (achievers) and some failed to find their balance (underachievers).  Students who wanted a social life while pursuing difficult majors encountered challenges from their friends and temptations to change their academic paths.  As with other groups in this book, capital provided by the parents in the form of money, connections, and so on, played a major role in students’ success.

Chapter Eight examines the post-college lives of the women in this study.  Armstrong and Hamilton identified the students primed to reproduce privilege, those who they predicted to be upwardly mobile, and those at risk of downward mobility.  The authors found that a majority of lower class women who aspired toward upward mobility found that dream at risk.  Ironically, the students of this group who left college with a greater chance of moving firmly into the middle class were those who left MU for regional campuses.

In Chapter Nine, Armstrong and Hamilton offer their conclusions and recommendations for policy and practice.  Some of their recommendations seem logical in light of their findings but unattainable.  For example, the authors recommend the elimination of Greek organizations, but given their description of Greek life at MU, the decision would most likely be met with major resistance from students and alumni.  Others, such as strengthening the “creaming” programs that provided Valerie with a positive college experience, seem vitally important.  Perhaps the most important conclusion is a reminder that higher education is under pressure to define its purpose.  There is no concrete answer on what that purpose may be, but institutions must recognize the intersectionality of their students’ identities and how a college education might help or hinder students’ abilities to better their lives.

Armstrong and Hamilton frankly recognize the racial homogeneity of the women they studied.  At the same time, I found their participants fascinating and found that their sample, despite being overwhelmingly white, allowed them the chance to isolate class and its relationship to the college experience.  Though I found myself confusing women with one another, tables with detailed data on the participants are provided throughout the chapters.  In all, this study was fascinating in its examination of the role class plays in students’ college experiences and the ability of college to reproduce or break class molds.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 03, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17170, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 7:18:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Erin Doran
    University of Texas at San Antonio
    E-mail Author
    ERIN E. DORAN is currently a doctoral student at the University of Texas at San Antonio in Educational Leadership with an emphasis in Higher Education Administration. Her research focus is on college developmental writing programs, particularly for Latino/a students, and faculty issues in improving these programs.
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