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How A Group Of Women Revealed Hard Truths In Higher Education

In 2004, researchers began studying female students to determine how social class impacted success. Their findings would alarm and illuminate.
Image: Graduating students listen to U.S. President Obama speak during commencement at the University of Michigan
File photo of graduating students at the University of Michigan listening as President Barack Obama delivers commencement speech. KEVIN LAMARQUE / Reuters
College Graduate for Hire

In 2004, a team of researchers moved into a “party dorm” at a mid-tier, public university for the purposes of studying sex on campus and the culture of hooking-up. But before long the lead researchers, Laura T. Hamilton and Elizabeth A. Armstrong, realized that they kept circling back to one key issue: how students’ social class was impacting their academic and social outcomes.

Their study evolved accordingly and they ended up tracking a group of female students for five to six years to determine what role class played in the women’s outcomes.

Their findings, gathered in the book, “Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality,” showed that less affluent women fared far less well, and their conclusions challenge deeply held assumptions about the priorities of state universities, the role of parents, and the perceived purpose of higher education.

According to researcher and co-author Hamilton, the root of the problem lies in state schools being structured to serve the needs of the affluent few: out-of-state students who contribute more to the school’s bottom line.

“A lot of schools have had to figure out ways to bring in more tuition dollars,” says Hamilton, who indicates that declining state support for higher education is part of the problem. “Most four years schools can’t compete for the cream of the crop who are also rich, so they have to compete for a less studious component of the rich.”

And that means students primed to party. Those students’ socially skewed collegiate priorities have led to schools creating catalogues of easy street majors, which ask little of students’ intellect or time, and in some cases provide qualifications for jobs that don’t even require degrees.

In fact, the issue of class is shown to play out in a myriad of ways, from a lack of parental guidance to students’ limited social options. The researchers witness the materialistic preening and peacocking for sorority rush which leaves less affluent women falling by the wayside in terms of networking and quality of life.

Even the researchers, “losers” by the standards of the “Mean Girls” of the dorm, find themselves sucked into the status-chasing vortex, scurrying to update their wardrobe, and growing out their short hair in order to gain the young women’s approval.

Here, Hamilton, reveals the surprising truth about what parents know and don’t know; explains why less prestigious regional schools can result in better outcomes for working-class students; and points to the fundamental shift in attitudes necessary for equitable change.

You talk about the implicit agreement between affluent students and the university to not ask too much of each other. What’s going on seems blatant yet less affluent parents and students seem unaware. Why is that?

To take the perspective of one of our less affluent families, they think of the state flagship as the most prestigious school in the system available to them. If you’re from a Midwestern state, or any state in the country, and you’re poor or less affluent, you don’t have a lot of understanding or experience in the higher education system, so you’re going to assume that the state flagship offers the best education available.

And it’s probably as far as you can reach financially because you can’t afford out of state tuition, and you can’t afford a private school, even though in fact some of those private schools might offer you more tuition and support than the state flagship -- a lot of parents don’t know this. They just don’t have a lot of familiarity with the system. So they assume that they’re sending their kids to the best place for them that they can afford.

They also have just a basic set of assumptions about college: that college is an escalator to the top, that it’s mobility, that it offers their children a shot at something that they otherwise wouldn’t have. They haven’t been looking at what major schools are offering or how schools are structuring. Even a lot of academics don’t really pay attention to that.

Did you interact with affluent parents to ascertain whether they are aware their kids are taking easy majors and having a socially driven college experience?

Yes. I was a graduate student at the time of this project and for part of my dissertation I interviewed the parents of these women, so I know exactly what they’re thinking. With the more affluent -- the upper-class, upper-middle-class, even some middle-class parents -- there’s this really popular line out there that college should be the best years of your life. It’s sort of become a very American thing. You can see it in movies as far back as the 1970's, like “Animal House,” which glorified the Greek experience at college, and more recently there’s been a huge spate of these movies. There’s this popular discourse that college should provide you with these magical years of fun and enjoyment. And in some ways this has become almost as central, if not more central, for not only kids but some parents.

There’s this popular discourse that college should provide you with these magical years of fun and enjoyment.

So there are a number of parents who sent their kids to school literally for that experience. They told me grades were secondary, they didn’t care about grades, they wanted their kids to have the best times of their lives. They knew they would smoke pot, they knew they would get drunk, they knew they would do all of these things, and that was what college was about.

Were they particularly thrilled with what their kids left college with? No. But a lot of these parents, were like, “You know, I worked really hard to get where I’m at, I’m just trying to provide an enjoyable life for my kids.”

Were they particularly thrilled with what their kids left college with? No. But a lot of these parents, were like, “You know, I worked really hard to get where I’m at, I’m just trying to provide an enjoyable life for my kids.” When the kids left with really crappy majors and really low GPAs and they couldn’t get jobs, they got a little irritated that they had to support their kids for a really long time. And some of them couldn’t do that, and their kids ended up taking jobs that didn’t require a bachelor’s degree. They tended to get really resentful of their kids, even though a lot of it was sort of what they had wanted for their children. There was just a big disconnect between what they wanted their kids to get out of it socially and what they thought that would yield in the end.

Not one of the working-class students graduated within the timeframe of your study, and those who left to go to less prestigious regional colleges ended up with better outcomes. What was your reaction to that?

When the working-class students started to leave, we thought this was bad. We assumed that they were moving down the ladder of prestige, that they would get less for their experience, and would be less likely to get good jobs. We were really surprised by the fact that they did better at many regional campuses around the state. And once we started to talk to the students, and think about how those campuses were organized, we started to make sense of things. The schools that they attended didn’t have large Greek systems, they didn’t have a large party scene, they didn’t have a lot of fluffy, easy majors, they had very pragmatic, practical majors and there were less of them so the students didn’t flounder trying to sort through the catalogues. They were with students like themselves who worked and couldn’t afford to go partying every night.

In prior research the finding had been just go to the most selective school you can, we said, no actually, in some cases the most selective school you can get to, may not actually be the best school for, we sort of revised that and said, what you need to look at is the fit between how the university is organized, what type of students they serve well, what kind of academic and social programming they provide, as well as the students’ own needs, agendas, resources.

If kids of less affluent parents are not as informed about the inner workings of the college system, why aren’t college advisors helping to bridge that gap?

One reason is that it’s massively expensive. To have the kind of advising system that you would need to advise less affluent students, you would effectively have to provide advice like affluent kids get from their parents. That would mean a lot more advisory staff and a lot better trained advisory staff. Schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, they have that. If you look at just the advisor to student ratio, there’s way more advisors per students at schools that have more money to do that.

I don’t know how to put this nicely, but the less affluent students are not the students who are keeping the university afloat.

I don’t know how to put this nicely, but the less affluent students are not the students who are keeping the university afloat. The students that the universities are most in need of keeping, are the students that contribute to solvency issues, and they are the out of state, affluent students who don’t actually need a lot of advice anyway. What they need is money channeled towards big-time sports, they need a Greek system, they need all of that stuff.

In a zero sum world, where you have a bucket of money and you have to figure out where you’re going to spend it...the decision almost always lands in favor of affluent students.

In a zero sum world, where you have a bucket of money and you have to figure out where you’re going to spend it, and what student population to serve best, the decision almost always lands in favor of affluent students. And what a lot of these universities do, is they then provide what we call a “creaming program” for the most talented of the less affluent students. They shower a small number of those students with all kinds of advisory resources and financial support, everything they need to get through school. Those students do well and they put those students in the brochures, but your typical less privileged student isn’t going to get that level of care because it’s massively expensive.

You document a lot of unflattering behavior among the women, in particular the vanity and materialism you saw in the sorority system. Can you talk about that?

In the world that they were in, they traded on that for status. I mean it’s completely understandable why so many of them are so invested in being cute, charming, hot, because it brought so many rewards. They had the most fun, they knew the most people, they were sought after by the hottest men. And the men were playing that same game too, it wasn’t just the women. A lot of the men on campus were investing in their masculinity and their prowess and doing a lot of extremely unsavory, horrible things that contributed to an environment in which women were treated like chattel effectively.

The more we did the study, the more we realized that these were not bad people, they were just responding to a particular environment which brought out some really less than desirable traits and interactions.

The affluent women obsess about being classy but their behavior is often not what most would define as such. Why the contradiction?

They don’t understand class. That’s part of the problem. I think other systems of class, where it’s really clear how class is weighed out, it sometimes makes it easier to navigate. Here it’s super stratified but nobody talks about class. So a lot of these really affluent students have absolutely no understanding of social class or how privileged they were relative to their peers, and what their peers’ lives were actually like.

These really affluent students have absolutely no understanding of social class or how privileged they were relative to their peers...

One woman wanted her roommate, who was a working-class woman, to go to one of the sports games with her, and when the roommate said she couldn’t afford it, the affluent women said, “Just put it on your bursar bill,” which is the bill that goes to the university. And the working-class women said, “But I have to pay that bill,” and the other women said, “What? My parents pay that bill.” She didn’t understand that some students actually pay for their own college.

If you were to ask them if they were discriminating on the basis of class, I honestly believe they would say “no” and believe that. They were looking for “fun” people who dressed like them who they could talk to, which effectively means someone who is affluent. This is the same way with the racial divide on campus and why the houses were all white. They would say, “Of course we don’t discriminate on race.” But a student of color wouldn’t have the same experiences, wouldn’t know the same people, wouldn’t wear the right clothes according to them, or have the right look. Therefore they would be cut out. But they would say that that was on the basis of personality and fit, when obviously class and race play in here.

You make recommendations at the end of the book but admit that most administrators would find them difficult to implement. What do you see as the engine that could drive change?

The thing that could change everything, would be a change in the public perception of higher education. The problem is that higher education used to be viewed as a public good and now it’s a private service. It’s that shift, the shift in where we put our tax dollars and how heavily we fund our systems...There have been historical moments in the United States, as far as our approach to higher education, when we believed fundamentally that society would be a better place if we tried to equalize people's access to higher education. We believed that talent is distributed across the strata of society and that we need the best talent of every strata.

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