Are our years in college the best one’s life? If so, is it because of the opportunities for personal growth, intellectual development, and lifelong friendships? Or does the myth of college rest on parties and Bacchanalian excess?
The answer is probably a bit of both. One of the best places to answer that question are our nation’s state flagship universities. These institutions have student populations measuring in the tens of thousands, clusters of specialized schools, powerful sports teams and storied histories. They play a pivotal role in their states. Admissions policies to the big state U’s attract tremendous scrutiny, as do their college rankings, athletics, students’ misbehavior, and presidential salaries. Promotional videos showcase student research. The media highlights the wild parties after sporting events. We need better understanding of life on the ground at flagships to make sense of what these institutions do and do not do for their students.
Two sociologists – Elizabeth A. Armstrong at the University of Michigan and Laura T. Hamilton and the University of California, Merced – decided to investigate female students and sexuality at an unnamed Big Ten flagship, MU. Research, however, does not always go as expected. What emerged from their longitudinal study of the 50+ young women who started at the same time on the same dormitory floor was something different: a study of student success and failure as they navigated treacherous social practices and expectations. The resulting book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, is a carefully crafted investigation into party culture, Greek life, academics, and class. Romance and sexuality are part of the narrative, but the real value of the book is in its analysis of social class and its intersection with expectations for college. It is an important book.
MU is a party school, like most large state institutions, with robust fraternities and sororities. “Partying” carries with it a host of expectations: binge drinking, drug use, and that the “best years of your life” are often enjoyed through a haze of excess. Once a party culture and reputation is established at a college, it replicates itself like a virus. Students choose to attend party colleges in order to party, not to focus on learning. More parties lead to more parties without active intervention.
Greek life reinforces party culture. Fraternities and sororities cast a large shadow over all student socializing. Their houses provide the space and means for parties. Students who do not pledge have less social capital, and if they want to cut loose, the fraternities and sororities beckon. Feeding the pull to Greek life are the strong social pressures college students feel. As anyone who has been around first year college students knows, peer pressure is acute in those early college years.
Greek life gives MU’s culture a particular cast. Fraternities and sororities are part of the college but also a world unto themselves. The authors explain the appeal and the multitude of costs of rushing for a sorority. The desire for social acceptance is be powerful. Young women feel pressure to spend money to dress and look a particular way. They feel constantly judged and is quite stressful, often to the point of being psychologically debilitating. In fact, as the authors report, there is little about the process of moving into Greek life that is affirming. It is demanding, conforming and rife with all manner of expectations. Women should be be “girly,” fun, wealthy and available for their peers. A desire for good grades and intellectual curiosity, traits that align with student success, are not part of the mix. Added to this, the time commitment sorority women face is extraordinary. Remember, too, that it is all peer driven.
There is very little in Greek life at MU that correlates with the development of the whole student, academic exploration, or a successful college education. To a student, though, sorority membership is a tempting choice. It offers social status and access. Tradition, culture and economics, have given Greek life a position of prominence at MU. The authors convincingly argue through qualitative and quantitative data that Greek life and its partner, party culture, is catastrophic for a college education.
The transition from high school to college is difficult to navigate under the best of situations. MU’s policies and indifference render it even more of a challenge. The young women in the study receive little meaningful advising or mentoring. This is not uncommon across higher education. Positive peer influences are random. Faculty – full or part-time – rarely seem to connect with them. Again, a fairly regular phenomenon in academia. At more élite institutions, full-time faculty are pressured to publish, and across higher education, the numbers of full-time faculty are decreasing. Part-time faculty can give outstanding instruction, but are rarely incentivized or supported to provide student advising and mentoring.
The overall college environment steers students into easier majors, academic pathways that require less intellectual effort. A bad grade in math make a career in teaching less likely? Switch to something less demanding. Choosing an easier path will make sense from a student’s perspective. At institutions that promote academic management, it also can appear to be a wise choice. However, it is not always the best outcome for the student’s long-term benefit. In the world of work, students with majors like sports communication face a much tougher time finding an internship or a starting job than those that have majors in more demanding fields like economics. Hard work usually pays off. Students have to see and know this.
The book thoughtfully explores that co-curricular and extra-curricular worlds the students inhabit. Family, of course, matters greatly. Successful students almost always have robust social networks, high degrees of internal discipline, and the ability to understand their college environment critically. These traits are not developed in high school or by MU.
The consequence of all this, Armstrong and Hamilton argue, is a default party pathway at MU. Students hailing from families with deep pockets can handle the “party pathway.” Most students, though, cannot. MU fails many. The results are surprising, but they are very real and demand attention from everyone involved.
Even though their attention is on defining and analyzing the problem, Armstrong and Hamilton have a few practical suggestions to offer: dismantle the party pathway, strengthen academic culture, and build mobility pathways for students. These are straightforward and common sense responses to a complicated problem. After all, we already knew that excessive partying was incompatible with learning and academic success. Academic faculty and leadership should take heed and take action.
What remains for me as a more intractable challenge of class. A college environment offers us an opportunity to build, to engineer, a better kind of culture. Colleges are how we invest in ourselves and our society. We have high expectations for how they operate and how the educate and socialize our young men and women. Meritocracy is a fundamental assumption to the entire endeavor. Paying For The Party made it clear to me that academia’s nod to meritocratic structures, most often delivered through a poorly considered “everyone is equal” mindset, reinforces class. Putting everyone in the same dorm and giving them the same access to courses does not make for an equitable – or even meritocratic – education.
If our nation’s colleges and universities are going to have the trust of our public and public officials, we have to address this head on.