- Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton
Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013, 322 pages, $30.88 (hardcover)
The results of a 5-year ethnographic study of female students on one residence hall floor at Midwest U is the subject of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. The research site is a large public flagship university in the Midwest. The structure of the book is oriented towards helping the reader understand the lives of these women and how social class influenced their choices. The nine chapters flow well together and the methodological aspects are relegated to appendices, which provide the research insights needed to contextualize how the authors approached their study. The research team had a room on the residence hall floor that allowed them to observe, interact, and interview the women over a 5 year period. In the first year they interviewed 41 of the 53 women on the floor, 37 in the second year, 36 in the third year, 41 in the fourth year, and 46 in the final year.
The book begins with a description of the women who agreed to be part of the research study and the context of the residence hall floor on which they lived. The authors present the students’ social class as well as their orientation towards college life. Social class is defined by parental education, occupation, and family economic resources. From these variables five distinct social classes were determined – upper class, upper-middle class, [End Page 753] middle class, lower-middle class, and working class. Because the authors come to this study from a sociological lens their categories may differ from those within higher education. They provide an appendix explaining how they approached the study of social class. The orientation towards college life was illustrated by the various pathways taken by the women. Summarizing their findings, and as reflected in the title of their book, the authors state, “When universities direct resources to attracting and serving affluent, socially oriented students—‘paying for the party,’ if you will—other students and families bear the cost. They place their faith in a system that does not serve them well, and pay the price with a lower-quality education and limited career options” (p. xiii).
The authors labeled three pathways that illustrate when universities’ structures fit the interests of students and thus allow them to follow a road, or pathway. The three pathways are: the party pathway, the mobility pathway, and the professional pathway. In addition, the authors classified the women as to how they fit within the pathways by using “descriptor” labels for how the pathway was carried out for the individual woman. Though the fit is never defined, it seems like a sub-theme that describes variations among the women within a pathway. Only the party pathways gets its own chapter because of the “ubiquity and breadth of the party pathway” (p. 50) at the institution. The party pathway has considerable emphasis on the Greek system at Midwest U.
The middle chapters explain the combination of pathway and individual descriptors. These include: Socialites, Wannabes, and Fit with the Party Pathway; Strivers, Creaming, and the Blocked Mobility Pathway; and Achievers, Underachievers, and the Professional Pathways. As an example of the insights gained about these women, those who were in the Party Pathways and were socialites focused on a “play hard and work as much as necessary to get by” approach to academic life. The wannabes, on the other hand, had higher academic aspirations, but ended up downgrading their aspirations in order to keep up with their more privileged peers in the party pathway. Descriptions like these resonate with anyone who has worked with undergraduate students and will help practitioners identify some of the actions and consequences of these pathways.
Each of the “descriptors” (e.g., socialites, wannabes) within the chapters is illustrated according certain dimensions that explain how the women within this group (descriptor) were influenced by aspects of social class. In many ways, the authors’ intent is to paint a picture of...