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March 24, 2014 9:43 AM Paying for the Party

By Henry Farrell

I’m currently running a reading group with a group of 7 seniors, all women, whom I’ve known, and have known each other, since the beginning of their freshman year. They have diverse majors (only one is a philosophy major—others include elementary education, human development and family studies, psychology…) and pretty diverse experiences, and my idea was to read a bunch of books about undergraduate life on the pretty much entirely selfish grounds that they might be able to interpret the books better than I can alone (I went to a college in London, never lived in a dorm, and had, generally, a very different experience). We’ve read Michael Moffatt’s classic Coming of Age in New Jersey, and Rebekkah Nathan’s My Freshman Year so far, and are now on to Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, recommended to me by a sociologist who is, I think, friends with the authors. Paying for the Party is just fantastic.

The authors lived for a year in a “party” dorm in a large midwestern flagship public university (not mine) and kept up with the women in the dorm till after they had graduated college. The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds. The facilitatory methods include: reasonably scrupulous enforcement of alcohol bans in the dorms (thus enhancing the capacity of the fraternities to monopolize control of illegal drinking and, incidentally, forcing women to drink in environments where they are more vulnerable to sexual assault); providing easy majors which affluent students can take which won’t interfere with their partying, and which will lead to jobs for them, because they have connections in the media or the leisure industries that will enable them to get jobs without good credentials; and assigning students to dorms based on choice (my students confirm that dorms have reputations as party, or nerdy, or whatever, dorms that ensure that they retain their character over time, despite 100% turnover in residents every year).

The problem is that other students (all their subjects are women), who do not have the resources to get jobs in the industries to which the easy majors orient them, and who lack the wealth to keep up with the party scene, and who simply cannot afford to have the low gpas that would be barriers to their future employment, but which are fine for affluent women, get caught up in the scene. They are, in addition, more vulnerable to sexual assault, and less insulated (because they lack family money) against the serious risks associated with really screwing up. The authors tell stories of students seeking upward social mobility switching their majors from sensible professional majors to easy majors that lead to jobs available only through family contacts, not through credentials. Nobody is alerting these students to the risks they are taking. So the class inequalities at entry are exacerbated by the process. Furthermore, the non-party women on the party floor are, although reasonably numerous, individually isolated—they feel like losers, not being able to keep up with the heavy demands of the party scene. The authors document that the working class students who thrive are those who transfer to regional colleges near their birth homes.

The Greek system comes in for particular criticism, perhaps unsurprisingly, and the authors details practices that are, even to the jaded, mildly disturbing. It is not an uplifting book. But it is really essential reading if you want to understand the culture of a large public university well.

My students include one sorority member, and I was a little uneasy reading it, worried she might be defensive. When asked by a peer about the representation of sororities, she took in a deep breath and said “well, to be honest, its pretty much exactly like that”. Though she added that the school in question (they had worked out which it is, its not hard) is has an unusually prominent Greek scene.

My students are particularly keen that administrators and professors read the book. Everyone else I have forced to read it (a good number) have been fascinated, and find it extremely enlightening. A typical reaction has been “I wish I had seen this in my first year of college, I’d have understood the institution and how to navigate it so much better”. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

But two other recommendations might be more compelling than mine. These are recent emails from students, frustrated that because of spring break we shall not be having our second discussion of the book for a while:

This book makes me so angry and I’m so glad that you are having us read it! I feel like more university faculty and administrators need to read it to start to understand what we’re going through. As I told you, I’m embarrassed that I identify with the lower class groups and how they describe my future as being so dismal. Obviously it’s never been easy, but it makes me worry about my future, more than I already had because now class status is floating through my head. Personally, I don’t care about what classes people belong to, except in this context because there is so much inequality……..

I also have a question about the admission process and I don’t know if you’ll know the answer. Do you know if when you apply to UW that you state your perceived class background or family income? I know when I applied that there was a question about first generation college students, but that’s different. I feel like with the first generation background they’re creating some sort of affirmative action for us, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily good given the university doesn’t have enough time for us.
One more also, they comment on how many women transferred to more regional, closer to home, colleges. This was the first time that I seriously kind of regret staying here. Don’t get me wrong, I love this city and everyone I’ve meet and all of the opportunities I’ve been given, but as I’ve talked with you about before, I think I should’ve made a bigger effort to transfer to a smaller university. It’s just sad to think that in my attempt to get a better education (or so I thought) at an infamous institution, I may have set myself up to fail.
Just some thoughts and since we aren’t meeting until the end of the month I needed to get them out!

2.

Yes,I agree it’s almost hard to read (although I really like it) because it’s revealing this huge problem, which I’m embarrassed to have never really realized before even though now that I’m reading this book the examples are so obvious. I can basically match people in the book to people I know. But anyways I’m struggling to come up with ways that would feasibly help decrease the ‘pathway’ or at least make it less of a determining factor of success- we should talk about that when we discuss the book after break.

and:

I’m just on the last chapter of Paying for the Party (hoping to finish it before I leave for spring break) You were right about the little uplifting part at the end (I’m assuming you mean the story about Monica [actually, it’s not Monica—she emailed me when she found the actually somehwat uplifting part at the very end]) and not everyone desiring the upper-middle class lifestyle. I was sort of questioning this throughout the story. I think the authors made a powerful point about class and the reproduction of privilege. However while reading it I was curious about the students long-term happiness, where are they now? People like Emma (who married Joe in the army) were only discussed for their downward trajectory throughout the story but I wonder how she’s doing now compared to some of the other girls. I guess I’m just curious about the happiness factor, I know money can influence happiness up to a point, but at some point I think having too much money can also be detrimental. Are the girls they interviewed who benefited from the primed to party lifestyle, currently happy? Are the people who experienced downward mobility happy?
Overall its clear there’s a big problem with how the universities are set up and a lot of factors contributing to/reinforcing that problem.

I defy anyone who has spent a lot of time at a large public flagship not to learn a lot from Paying for the Party.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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