How to End the College Class War
From the time I was seven years old, there was one word my parents repeated in every grade, at every test, during any slip-up: college.
My parents didn't go to college; they married when my mother was still a teenager, to escape poverty and less-than-stellar home lives. But they were certain that college was the gateway to the middle class for their daughters: public school plus university equals meritocracy and the American Dream.
My aunt was the lunch lady at a good school, so they used her to help us move out of the zone school in our lower-income neighborhood. They saved and sent us to test-prep classes for the exam New York City kids take to get into specialized public high schools. I tested into the school that was hardest to get into, the one largely considered the best public high school in New York.
My parents did everything right. The meritocracy was working.
I got accepted to multiple colleges and chose Tulane University in New Orleans, eager to prove myself outside the bubble of the Big Apple.
But I hadn't even finished my first year before I wrote a letter, begging my parents to pull me out of school and bring me home.
"Everyone drinks all the time," I wrote. "Everyone has money. ... It's not real life here, if this is real life I don't like it."
I was 17. It was the first time I had been away from my parents for more than a few days. As far as I knew, I was the only student in my Tulane hall on financial assistance, the only first-generation college student, and the only one of two or three women who didn't (and couldn't afford to) rush a sorority.
It was the most awful, culture-shocked year of my life – and I flunked out after my second semester, depressed and ashamed.
So it was hard for me reading a new bestseller in the making, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, and not think of that year. I had never understood how I could fail so miserably at something my parents worked so hard to prepare me for. But according to authors and sociology professors Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, my experience was disconcertingly normal.
Turns out, the college experience - what we're told is the most obvious path to upward mobility - is actually reinforcing class inequality as much as it disrupts it.
Armstrong and Hamilton share the results of a five-year interview study on the campus of "MU" - an unnamed, Midwestern public university. The authors lived with, followed and interviewed a large group of women in a "party dorm" as they navigated college and post-college life.
Their research shows how many universities are literally designed for students privileged enough to party their way through school, knowing full well that they'll have a job waiting for them (and a parental financial cushion if they don't).
The authors dub this problem the "party pathway" - a social life powered mostly by fraternities and sororities that "provides a way for affluent, white, socially oriented students to isolate themselves from their less privileged peers." Between these social networks, plus easy majors and parents to support them throughout college and after, the new student elite is destined for success before they hit their first kegger.
For less fortunate students, the same path proves disastrous. Armstrong and Hamilton found out that "without parental resources to compensate for poor achievement and limited skill acquisition, a number left college at risk of downward mobility."
Some students were able to inoculate themselves from downward mobility in what Armstrong and Hamilton call "protective segregation," joining up with subcultures at school like the LGBT community, religious groups or the arts. (Such was the case for me when I found feminism at my second-try college, SUNY Albany.)
Regardless of the success, class impacted almost every aspect of the college women's lives - even sexual assault. Female students who had parents who went to college were able to warn their daughters about the tactics of fraternity predators, and were actually less likely to be targeted because, as Armstrong and Hamilton write, "insulting a highly ranked woman in a top sorority was akin to affronting her whole sorority". Lower-income students - especially those women who were perceived as garish - were more likely to be assaulted and less likely to be believed.
The way women sought out relationships was also class-based at MU. Richer women played the field, planning to wait until their thirties to marry the "right" person. Lower-income women were more interested in - and pressured into by families - meeting someone to form a long-term relationship with, and to share financial burdens.
The way class operated was often not explicit. The Greek system, for example, had all rushes interviewed wearing the same shirt. But designer purses and jewelry were markers of financial commonality, and even acted as conversation-starters for potential "sisters". If that didn't do the trick, the t-shirt required for rush itself was $60 - a price out of reach for many of the students interviewed.
Joining a sorority is not for everyone - I certainly wasn't that interested - but it provided female students with access to a highly valued social life, networking skills and development of a "polished femininity" that helped the women when they interviewed for jobs after college. In one particularly sad anecdote, one of the less-privileged women Armstrong and Hamilton studied went to a job interview at a Northern California winery where she was the only applicant present not wearing a suit. She knew immediately she wouldn't get the job.
The upper and upper middle class students ended up doing as well as they always knew they would, in what the authors call the "reproduction of privilege". For others, the results were mixed. Most surprising to me was that the less affluent women who did the best were generally the ones who left MU to go to regional colleges where the financial responsibilities were less, the party culture less ubiquitous, and where fellow students were similarly situated.
Such was the case with me - I did well at SUNY Albany, where all of my friends and dorm-mates had jobs outside of school and were paying their own way, and where the racial and economic diversity were more what I was accustomed to after growing up in Queens. Every day I didn't see a girl wearing pearls to class was a good day. But the shame I felt at failing from Tulane - and failing my family - never left me.
Armstrong and Hamilton have suggestions for how to dismantle the party pathway that disadvantages so many students - the first, and most obvious, is to do away with the Greek system. Knowing that's unlikely, they also suggest closer monitoring and requirements that would make pledges more diverse along race and class lines. They also advise housing students by academic interest to foster stronger, less damaging ties. While the authors note that schools actively integrating houses by race would "dilute the concentration of students that sustain a party culture," the impact on students of color - who use that "protective segregation" to succeed in schools that are largely still racist - would be destructive.
Two recommendations from the book seem smartest to me: to increase the quality and frequency of advising students - especially those in need - and for universities to stop building programs around affluent students looking for a "fun" college experience. No small task - but I'm thrilled Armstrong and Hamilton are starting the conversation.
I take responsibility for my role in that disastrous first year of college - I drank too much and studied too little. I made bad decisions. But wise decision-making is not a strong-suit for 17- and 18-year-olds, and schools should be helping students to make better ones - not aiding the wealthy to get away with their bad ones.
But I was fortunate - I had parents that kicked my ass into another school. I found a community, at SUNY Albany's women's studies department, that supported me and an academic path energized me. I went to graduate school – something I was able to afford thanks to in-state financial aid that left me without undergraduate loans. I worked hard to fix my mistakes, yes - but my success was also sheer luck. My life could have gone very differently, and my whole future could've been changed. All in the course of a year.