Why Social Life Has Overshadowed Academics At Many Colleges

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sociologists Laura Hamilton, of the University of California, Merced, and Elizabeth A. Armstrong, of the University of Michigan, co-authors of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2013) share the results of their five-year study of female undergraduates and their disheartening conclusion that college fails to provide social mobility.

Excerpt from Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality

1 Introduction

Taylor and Emma started college at Midwest University during the fall of 2004.1 They had a lot in common. They lived on the same residence hall floor and planned to pursue careers in dentistry. Like virtually all of their floor mates, they were white, American- born, heterosexual, unmarried with no children, and roughly eighteen years old. Both had strong high school records: Emma had earned “straight A’s and was in all of the advanced placement classes”. Taylor reported a 3.78 high school grade point average (GPA). Although Taylor’s family was more affluent than Emma’s, both were from middle- or upper- middle- class families. The two women majored in biology and took advantage of opportunities to further their career goals.

Their circumstances one year after graduation differed dramatically. Taylor left with a 3.6 GPA and was enrolled in dental school. She was thrilled:

I decided on [Top 15 Dental School], and I’m really happy. I like it here. . . . Everyone I've talked to who’s graduated has had [job] offers. . . . Starting salary’s like $90,000, and then I think it can go pretty high from there.

Emma graduated with a 3.0 GPA and was working as a dental assistant— making $11 an hour in a job that did not require a bachelor’s degree. She, not surprisingly, was disappointed:

When I first started working, I felt ridiculous. I felt like I was wasting all of my schooling and I just felt that I didn't belong there with those people because I should be doing something else with people who have college degrees. 

Disparity in career prospects does not fully capture differences in their class trajectories at college exit. Emma was forced to return home and live 2 Introduction with her parents in a small Rust Belt city, further constraining her job opportunities. Her $10,000 student loan bill, though small compared with those of others, loomed large given her income. Graduate school was not possible as she was in competition with science majors who did not get into medical school. Emma explained:

I applied to a clinical laboratory scientist program. I didn't get in. . . . They only pick four students a year. A lot of kids . . . if they don’t get into medical school then they apply to this program. . . . It was based off your GPA and a lot of these kids were coming in with extremely, extremely, high GPAs.

Emma’s lack of direction tied her closer to her boyfriend, Joe, a working class man. She noted: The other option if I didn't get into the program was to move . . . and be with Joe.

So this August, I will be moving. . . . Right now, it’s like I have no choice. . . . It doesn't make any sense for me to stay in [my hometown] and do a job that I don’t really like and I can’t progress in.

As Joe was in the military, the move would take her far from her family, to somewhere where she had no social ties. Living on base required being married and living off was more expensive, putting pressure on Emma to marry young. Joe’s position offered health and educational benefits she could access as his wife, but his entry- level military pay was low.

In contrast, Taylor, in dental school, was enmeshed in a vibrant campus community. Generous parental support had allowed her to graduate with no debt, despite having to pay out- of- state tuition. Her parents were prepared to continue to cushion her transition to adulthood with substantial subsidies— although this would probably be unnecessary. Taylor was single and meeting fellow dental students but was in no rush to marry. Because she could support herself she did not need to settle. As Taylor told us, “I just want the perfect man”.

Taking into account past and future parental support and marital as well as career prospects, Taylor appeared on track to reproduce her upper-middle class origins. Emma, conversely, left college at risk of downward mobility. It might be tempting to view these outcomes as meritocracy at work. Such an explanation is unconvincing, though, as Emma and Taylor were similarly well prepared and motivated at the outset of college. As we detail in Chapter 7, their fates diverged upon entering the organizational infrastructure of Midwest University. Here, relatively small class differences were magnified, sending them in different directions.

Excerpt from PAYING FOR THE PARTY by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura Hamilton

Comments [12]

Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Students should study what their aptitudes dictate, otherwise they will be completely useless at any job. One can expand one's horizons by studying additional subject matter, but you can't force the sciences or mathematics on left-brained people who haven't the capacity any more than you would want Sheldon Cooper to teach literature.

Believe it or not, there are places in society for almost any line of endeavor, but what is not taught in college/university settings is how the puzzle pieces fit together.

There is also still the problem of networking and nepotism v competence. I would - in most instances - favor competence over any other qualification, and that is gender-neutral.

Apr. 15 2013 11:04 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Your guests are prime examples of the products of a social sciences "education."

Apr. 15 2013 10:59 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Social circles have always inordinately affected economic mobility, it's just that too few of us understand this.

Apr. 15 2013 10:58 AM
Barbara Hoffmann from PA

I am a liberal Democrat and realize that there is prejudice in most parts of our lives. But, I find these argument, kind of stupid.

Apr. 15 2013 10:57 AM
John A

OMG creying.

Apr. 15 2013 10:57 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Eliminate the Greek system? Sure. Allow only Animal Houses instead :) It's the Greeks versus the Animals.

Apr. 15 2013 10:56 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

College may enhance upward mobility but not necessarily equality. Students with connections and wealthy families will always get ahead - for both men and women.

The terrible economy means that $11 an hour jobs are norm for both everyone.

Apr. 15 2013 10:56 AM
Kathy from Somerset Co NJ

Why should we take this study seriously if only one, unnamed school was its subject?

Apr. 15 2013 10:54 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Also, "social science" is an oxymoron, and the entire field should be correctly re-labeled "social engineering" for truth-in-advertizing purposes. Sociology is the worst offender.

Apr. 15 2013 10:51 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

The college-bust follows the housing-bust as the most recent bubble bursts. The liberal propaganda that "everyone has to have" a college degree, following the conservative propaganda that "everyone has to" own a home is finally being exposed to the fresh air of harsh economic realities. Surplus education like surplus housing eventually diminishes in economic value. High school should be re-purposed to produce workers upon graduation, not academics.

Apr. 15 2013 10:40 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Amazon Review-

“By focusing on the lives of young women who spent freshman year living on a 'party floor,' Armstrong and Hamilton help us understand critical issues facing American higher education, including the out-sized role of sororities and fraternities and how the values of affluent students coincide with the interests of universities to empower the 'party pathway.'”

“Women from more privileged backgrounds survived their partying through school due to their more substantial support systems at home.”



Apr. 15 2013 10:35 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Why wouldn’t this class difference among males affect them as well?

Where is the hand wringing that only 40% of college graduates are now males?
That only 40% of masters degrees go to males?
Where is the outrage that there are 132 female college grads for every 100 male grads?
Why isn’t the liberal victimhood industry screaming about the doctrine of “disparate impact” as it affects men on campus?
LOL ... in fact, all they do is use THIS imbalance as a pretext for discrimination claims at the next higher level.

Apr. 15 2013 10:31 AM

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