A friend of mine recommended Paying for the Party last summer as a study of how higher education upholds the very social classes that it claims to help people break down. I was intrigued, but couldn’t get a copy at the library.
Fast forward a few months and I’m at work conference and Elizabeth Armstrong is the speaker. In the context she was addressing liquor-fueled disruptive events on campus and mostly talked about the Greek system and how much partying is part of college culture (sometimes even supported by the administration). I was disappointed that she didn’t speak more about class, but it was understandable, given the goals of the conference.
After the conference I tracked down the book and breezed through it. This book is a really interesting read. It traces the lives of freshmen women living in a ‘party dorm’ at a large public college in the Midwest. The authors lived in the dorm for a year, interviewing the women and observing their lives.
The story of the upper class girls reads like a tv show. Constant striving to be seen with the right people, have the right clothes, and accessories and be accepted by the right sorority. The upper middle class women trying to rise are even more caught up in this world as they try to break in.
The lower class women are excluded from this world, and all the potential for social rise that goes with it. Often they are unprepared for college life and lack the support they need to succeed. College is created to help those who have continue to have and those without (particularly social know how) are on their own. The implications they point out to diversity are very disturbing.
I found it interesting that the authors conclude that for many of these women, they would be better off to attend local public colleges in order to stay closer to their support system and to avoid the social world of the large public schools.
Given current conversations, the observations of the prevalence of sexual violence and excessive drinking (often going hand in hand) are heart breaking. It’s hard to know what universities can do to combat this, but they have to do something. Sexual violence should not be an expected part of the college experience.
I would recommend this book to anyone involved in higher education. While the study certainly has its limits, their methods put human faces on the data we often hear.