In my Sociology Capstone class this semester, Dr. Ann Beutel assigned us to read about Dr. Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Dr. Laura T. Hamilton’s groundbreaking sociological research in their 2013 book Paying for the Party. This is not a new release, but I have chosen to write and publish a review anyway, as it remains strikingly relevant to college life today, particularly here at OU. Armstrong and Hamilton’s study took place at a moderately selective state flagship university, which they refer to using the pseudonym “Midwest University.” Glaring hints within the text, however, reveal that the study was in fact conducted at Indiana University, which bears a striking resemblance to our own University of Oklahoma. Each of these schools has abandoned, by necessity or by choice, its commitment to public education in favor of tuition dollars from wealthy families who are willing to pay top dollar for the quintessential “college experience,” an experience which is inaccessible and even detrimental to the learning experience and personal development of less privileged students.
Both schools’ social and academic worlds are dominated by Greek life, despite the fact that a minority of students at each flagship “go Greek.”
Each university is experiencing a crisis in state funding, leading them to prioritize the admission and enrollment of wealthier out-of-state students who can afford to pay the non-resident “sticker price” at the expense of lower-income residents of its own state.
Hamilton and Armstrong’s landmark study followed the residents of a single, predominantly White, women-only floor of a so-called “party dorm” at IU (or MU, as the book refers to it), where the social world was dominated by Greek life. The researchers divide the residents, with whom they followed up over the next five years, into the three major pathways that the women followed: the “party pathway,” “mobility pathway,” and “professional pathway.”
The party path was by far the road most taken, and the university infrastructure reinforced its dominance at every turn. However, the success of women who followed this path was largely determined by their socioeconomic status. Since involvement in “greedy organizations” like sororities demanded so much of these women’s time, many were steered toward what Armstrong and Hamilton refer to as “easy majors:” those less academically rigorous programs that offered a chance at entry into glamorous, high-status industries like fashion and sports media.
“Socialites,” those who fit effortlessly into Greek social life, tended to come from upper- to upper-middle class backgrounds. In addition to their parents’ wealth, these women had access to valuable social networks of other wealthy people, from parents’ colleagues who could provide access to prestigious internships and jobs, to the privileged fraternity men who composed the dating and hookup market. These women started college knowing which dormitory to choose and which classes to take (and with which professors). Their peers provided a layer of protection from the dangers present at fraternity parties, as fraternity men knew there would be consequences to preying on the high-status girlfriends and associates of their brothers. These high-status women expressed a favorable view of both their college experiences and the university itself.
“Wannabes,” on the other hand, hailed from upper-middle to middle class families. Despite the class privilege these women possessed, they had access to fewer resources and less socio-cultural capital than their socialite peers. These women were drawn to Greek life, but tended to face rejection during the rush process, during which the process of selection determined most of them unfit for membership in the most elite sororities, or “top houses.” Wannabes, most of whom ended up in middle- to lower-tier sororities, were less suited for the party lifestyle. They lacked the connections to high-status social networks that socialites took for granted, and struggled to pay sorority dues.
After graduation, socialites, despite their relatively modest academic achievements, used their parents’ social connections and continued financial support to help them get settled in major cities and gain entry into prestigious job and marital markets. Wannabes, on the other hand, could not always count on the continued support of their parents, who were unable to help them land jobs and pay for apartments in expensive cities like New York and Washington, DC. Their low-to-average GPAs in image-based industries were similarly unhelpful, and many of them were buried in debt from financing a party lifestyle while in school (especially since many of these graduates paid out-of-state tuition while in school, a major expense to their middle-class families, but less of a burden to the wealthier parents of socialites). Many of the wannabes, saddled with debt and with few lucrative career prospects to show for their time at “Midwest University,” were at risk of downward mobility after graduation.
The next “pathway” Armstrong and Hamilton discuss is referred to as the blocked mobility pathway. The promotion of social mobility, they point out, is supposedly the mission of public universities. This is a well-established idea: students from all socioeconomic backgrounds are supposed to be able to improve their future earning prospects through affordable, quality public education in their home states. However, students on this pathway are less able to afford higher education, particularly with the decline in public funding. We see the consequences of this trend every day at the University of Oklahoma, as barriers to the success of working-class students arise at every turn.
The majority of working-class subjects in Armstrong and Hamilton’s study faced severe difficulties in improving their economic prospects in college. Most of them pursued “practical” majors designed to lead graduates directly into employment, such as nursing. However, some were diverted from this path by the allure of majors that were less directly associated with particular employment opportunities, such as tourism; these students tended to change majors often, and many felt that they wasted time and money pursuing unrealistic career paths in “party pathway” majors which were more suited to socialites and others who could afford to be more lackadaisical in their major choice, particularly since landing jobs in such fields often has a great deal more to do with appearance, cultural capital, and social connectedness than with academic achievement. The authors argue that the proliferation of such programs is specifically designed to attract wealthy out-of-state partiers whose tuition comprises an ever-increasing portion of the university’s funding.
Armstrong and Hamilton divide the mobility pathway group into two sub-groups: strivers and “creamed” students. The term “creaming” here refers to “cream-of-the-crop” programs, much like the McNair Scholars program at OU, which identifies talented working-class and first generation students and provides them with resources to help them succeed. However, in the population observed in this longitudinal study, only one subject was placed in such a program. Among the rest of the working-class students, the “strivers,” the most successful after graduation were those that left Indiana University to study at more affordable regional institutions. Others left school in debt, often without graduating, and were at risk of downward mobility, particularly those that felt pressured to marry at young ages in order to attain the financial security of a dual-income partnership. Many of these women expressed doubts about whether attending their state’s flagship university was worth it at all.
In between the party and mobility pathways lies the professional pathways: pre-medicine, engineering, business, pre-law studies, and other degree programs designed to prepare undergraduates for graduate or professional studies and high-status white collar careers. The largely middle-class students who follow this pathway are described as achievers (those who succeed on this pathway, achieve high GPAs, and end up in graduate school, prestigious internships, or on the path toward well-paying jobs) or underachievers, those who struggle on the professional course. Once again, success or failure on the professional course is predicted by socioeconomic status; upper-middle class students fare relatively well, while the lower-middle class students, as well as those who become distracted by the temptations of the party lifestyle, struggle to achieve either upward mobility or a reproduction of the socioeconomic status they were born into.
The degradation of the mobility and professional pathways and the predominance of campus social life by Greek life and the party pathway makes it difficult, both for IU and OU students from less privileged backgrounds, to find their way out of financial disadvantage. I concur with Armstrong and Hamilton’s conclusion: that state flagships must return to their original mission and invest in tracks that benefit those residents of their respective states who are most in need of public education. By disproportionately funding and promoting a version of campus life that is only accessible to wealthy, White, heterosexual, cisgender students of traditional college age, public institutions like OU are neglecting the nontraditional, racialized, queer, and lower-income in-state students who comprise increasingly large portions of the populations these schools are meant to serve.
Paying for the Party describes a disturbing trend in higher education: public institutions are failing to provide upward mobility and economic security for their more disadvantaged students as promised. Instead, they reinforce and even increase economic inequality. Higher education is not an equalizer, but rather a system of stratification not unlike the K-12 pre-college tracking programs that determine which children will go to college in the first place. The special status awarded by public universities to elitist, exclusionary, White supremacist Greek organizations only worsens this, ensuring that wealthier, Whiter students will receive the lion’s share of institutional resources.
But even before graduation, during the first year, when all of the women in the study resided on the party floor, the experiences of the students varied immensely, and their social lives were determined by their socioeconomic status and relative levels of cultural capital. Wealthy, blonde, and conventionally attractive cisheterosexual women fared well: they dominated the social world of the floor at the expense of their neighbors. In pairs of roommates, the wealthier of the two would almost invariably become the dominant roommate, consequently defining the pair. Much like in my own freshman dorm at OU, floormates would routinely fail to acknowledge the lower-status roommate or even learn her name; she was simply “so-and-so’s roomate”. The lower-status roommates, the social isolates, the queer and working class residents typically found themselves rooming with sorority women in the “party dorm” by accident. These women, the kind of women who either get cut from rush, cannot afford sorority dues, or know better than to rush at all, were almost completely unable to make friends on the floor, had their sleep and study interrupted by noisy neighbors, and were completely excluded from eating meals or attending social functions with the women who lived around them. Their neighbors in this small “community” simply forgot they existed. This is exactly what happened to me.
Much like myself, many of these women fell into depression, and a large portion could not list more than a single floormate they could call a friend. I, too, managed to befriend only one individual on my floor. They were invisible; they dined alone (which their more socially integrated peers knew constituted “social suicide” and would avoid at all cost) and were not privy to the crucial, socially-diffused knowledge of campus culture that helped their peers navigate university life. Many of these women struggled through college: some dropped out; some developed substance use disorders; several experienced gender-based violence; some did not graduate on time; many graduated but were still unable to find jobs requiring a college degree and continued to struggle post-graduation.
Exclusion from campus left these women vulnerable, much as I found myself during my first year at OU, during which time I ate all but a handful of my meals in absolute solitude and spiraled into the worst period of manic depression I have ever experienced. Much like the two gay women featured in Paying for the Party, I found no camaraderie in the so-called university community, which I came to understand was not built to house queers like me. And of course, for students of color, nontraditional students, and those who lack access to the middle class privileges, psychiatric care, and academic scholarships which kept me afloat during that time, residence life can be even more alienating and unwelcoming.
The experience of reading this book was deeply painful. It brought memories of profound alienation and isolation roaring back to the surface, and it brought me to tears several times. During my initial year at OU, one of my only comforts was the spectacular view from my westward-facing window at sunset, an image I have since had permanently etched onto my body in vivid color as a reminder that the sun will set on every difficult day, and on every agonizing semester. But it allowed me to process the difficult experiences of my first year at OU, and it gave me some insight into the institutional and societal context that shaped the year I spent as a lone GDI holed up on the 11th floor of Walker Tower, surrounded on every side and ignored at every turn by sorority women, wondering if I would ever find a place in the world to call home. Queer spaces in Norman are few and far between, but I am thankful every day that I no longer live in a dormitory tower.
To anyone with whom this resonates: You are not failing at being a student. Student life is failing you.
Read the book.
Kelsey Morris is a Sociology senior from the Dallas area. She has been a member of the FORUM team since January 2016 and plans to enter the field of public health.