College and Class: 2 Researchers Study Inequality, Starting With One Freshman Floor

Harvard U. Press

A new book traces inequality among college students.
April 01, 2013

The college experience can be quite different for students depending on their class backgrounds. That's what Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton found in a five-year, in-depth, longitudinal study of women who started out living on the same floor in a "party dorm" at a public flagship they call "Midwest University." Ms. Armstrong, an associate professor of sociology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Ms. Hamilton, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced, spoke with The Chronicle about their new book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, to be released this month by Harvard University Press. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Q. Many people in higher education cherish the belief that college provides opportunity to students from less-advantaged families, but some of your findings poke holes in that idea. Tell us about the experience of the less-affluent students you followed.

L.H. One of the more depressing things we saw was by the end of the entire study not a single one of the working-class women we followed managed to graduate from Midwest University. A number of them left for other institutions that were less prestigious. Ironically, that move ended up being a good decision. The outcomes according to class were very stark.

Q. There was one exception, one of these mobility-project students who did fare well. What happened with her?

E.A. This student did well because she got into one of these programs that we ended up calling "creaming programs." Many universities have programs that are designed to identify very talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds and provide them with additional resources. Programs at the university we studied were teeny. By seeing these programs, we got a sense of what kind of support students from less-advantaged backgrounds would need to do well. Comprehensive advising. That's crucial. Advising matters. And ways to defray the very real expenses. The affordability issues are just absolutely front and center.

Q. The more affluent women had a very different experience during and after college. Tell us a little about that.

L.H. Most of them succeeded in reproducing their parents' class background or at least moving up into the upper-middle class. All of the affluent women that we studied ended up receiving quite a bit of parental support after college that allowed them to translate their experiences at MU into jobs. They didn't necessarily have any better credentials than the other women we studied. In fact, affluent women on average had not particularly stellar GPAs. Many of them were in what we classified as easy majors. But what they did have is parents who could immediately call up their friend, and those parents got their kids jobs, effectively, through powerful networks.

E.A. That's our socialite pathway. There was another type of affluent woman who was successful; we call her the "achiever." The achiever women were successful because they had parents who could really navigate and invest and help them through every aspect of college. One young woman who ended up in dental school, her parents had helped her outline even before she started college what her résumé would need to look like to get in, and then helped her every step of the way. So in her case, what appeared to be merit by the time that she applied to dental school was a direct result of extremely savvy parental investment.

Q. When you look at the direction the graduates are headed in, you take into account not only the jobs they're in but also parental resources and romantic prospects. Why?

L.H. Take two women who make $30,000. One has massive college loans. She's not receiving any parental support. She was not able to leave her hometown, so she's not networked into a group of men who are also high achievers. In contrast, think about someone who might be making $30,000, no student-loan debt, parents are supplementing rent allowing them to live in a much nicer area where there are more jobs. This person is mingling socially with men who are making quite bit of money. Increasingly, one of the best ways to secure class privilege is through consolidating your affluence and your income, education with that of a spouse who is also really educated and has a good income. Those things would send them on totally divergent trajectories.

Q. You suggest that the university climate also plays a role in how students fare. How do you know?

E.A. If one asked any university official, they would all be wanting to say that what they were trying to do was create a really rich educational environment leading everybody to move into strong professional trajectories. But what happens, particularly in this moment where public universities are becoming so tuition dependent, is that universities are in a position that in order to stay solvent they really have to attend very carefully to what it is that their most affluent, their most reliable set of students—set of customers, really—is going to want.

L.H. The women from less-privileged backgrounds, these are women who if they made it to Midwest U. given all the barriers they faced, they were exactly the kind of student that you would think would succeed in any context. But at Midwest U. they struggled, and they were unable to stay or do well because the organizational environment was set up to serve a different type of student. In terms of both the social scene and the academics, it catered to the needs of affluent, socially oriented students. So when they left, they did better. This is the best example that you can offer that organizational context really matters. In a different context, they thrived.