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Amanda Hess at Slate recently reminded me that I had meant to read Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton’s longitudinal, ethnographic study of a cohort of undergraduate women, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard Univ. Press, 2013). Armstrong and Hamilton’s research team spent a year in residence at “Midwest University” living with a group of first-year women assigned to one of the school’s party dorms; they continued to follow the cohort on their floor for five years — the typical four years to degree and one year after. What began as a study of young women’s sexual agency at a large public university quickly turned into a study of class, and how strongly pre-existing socioeconomic conditions in the lives of each student determined her trajectory through college and into her immediate post-college circumstances. Hess’ article at Slate highlights some of what the research team did discover about the sexualization of college women during their work; Paying for the Party delves into the class issues that define many young women’s path through university.

The central thesis of Party is that undergraduates at large state universities (the researchers hesitate to generalize from a single case study) are constrained by the available cultures of their schools — and often the specific dorms to which they are assigned — in ways that limit the ability of less privileged students to utilize college as a tool for class mobility.

What the researchers found was that the majority of students entered MU on course to take one of three readily-available “pathways” through the college years: the party pathway, the professional pathway, and the mobility pathway. The researchers acknowledge that other pathways exist, both at MU and elsewhere, but for the cohort they studied, these were the three dominant ways of approaching college. The dominant pathway was the “party” pathway; the elite and upper-middle-class women of the cohort arrived on campus with plans to strengthen their already-privileged social networks through the Greek system, tracked to areas of study that facilitated this way of life, and left college with low GPAs and degrees that would have been useless without their high-powered family connections and financial resources. Less privileged women who attempted to access the party pathway typically suffered a high loss of resources and low return. The party pathway also ruthlessly policed the performance of femininity according to a very specific set of elite standards which required money and time to cultivate and maintain.

In addition to the struggles of women on the party pathway who were unable to compete with the elite partiers in terms of time, resources, social connections, and conventional beauty, Paying for the Party also chronicles the way the party pathway culture encroaches on those beyond its borders. Even women who tried to follow the professional or mobility pathway found their efforts stymied by the dominant party cohort. The researchers argue that non-elite students need more robust support for non-party alternatives in order for college to be both cost effective and life enhancing.

There are limitations to the study. For example, I couldn’t help but feel that even taking broad social categories into account, the party/professional/mobility pathways schema left out crucial segments of the undergrad population. Perhaps because the research team chose a “party” dorm, or perhaps because they were at a land grant research university instead of a liberal arts college, they failed to identify the pathway that I and many of my closest friends were on: What I might call the “how to live” pathway. This is the pathway that treats learning as a goal in and of itself, and self-knowledge — as well as wider horizons — as a valuable part of the college experience on par with skill acquisition/job training. And it’s not a pathway exclusively available to the rich; I know students across the economic spectrum who used college as a step-stone to a meaningful life (not necessarily a well-heeled one). Armstrong and Hamilton hint at such rewards toward the end of the book when they profile a student who had limited economic resources, struggled in school, and yet one year after graduating is building a meaningful life for herself working as a ski instructor and living with her partner in the wilderness setting that drew them together.

They also suggest throughout the book that MU has other subcultures of students whose subcultures provide a robust alternative to the party pathway and help students succeed: the arts students, the African-American learning community, the LGBT group. But it seems that none of their cohort originally assigned to the party dorm found their way to these rich subcultures, a telling finding in and of itself that shows how segregated a campus can be, and how the crap shoot of first-year campus housing may make or break students. Particularly the most vulnerable ones whose families have little or no experience navigating higher education.

Despite the study’s necessarily narrow focus on its original cohort, I highly recommend Paying for the Party to anyone interested in higher education, economic inequality, and the ways in which gender plays out in specific ways in both social class and college contexts.