The Chronicle Review

Social Life and Social Inequality

July 02, 2012

Declining state support and rising tuition do more than reduce access to public higher education for many low-income students. The trends also lure colleges into catering to the social and educational needs of affluent, full-freight students at the expense of others. In doing so, they create a social atmosphere that has a profound effect on mobility.

In a forthcoming book, we report on a five-year study of college life, based on interviews at a midtier public research university in the Midwest. We followed a cohort of women who started there and lived on the same dormitory floor through their entrance into the work force. Similar except for class background, they left college with vastly different life prospects. Time spent at the university had done little to diminish existing differences. Few of the women from less privileged backgrounds realized their dreams of upward mobility, while most of those from privileged backgrounds were poised to reproduce their parents' affluence. While our in-depth data is on women, we do not expect that the situation will be different for men.

The women's outcomes were, in large part, a result of the structure of academic and social life on the campus. We identified three pathways through the university, each associated with the agenda of a different group of students. The party pathway accommodated the interests of socially oriented and out-of-state students—the segment of the affluent for which the university was best poised to compete by offering a fun "college experience." At the heart of the party pathway was a powerful Greek system, a residence-hall system that fed students into the party scene, and numerous "easy" majors. As the most visible and well-resourced route through the institution, the party pathway was impossible to avoid—even by those who wished to. It was a constant reminder to those who couldn't afford or didn't wish to join of their place in the university.

The professional pathway, which moved academic achievers into professional jobs, required early and active intervention by involved, educated parents, often putting it out of reach of less-affluent women. The mobility pathway, through which many of those less-privileged students sought access to the middle class, was so poorly supported by the university that those women who transferred to less-prestigious regional campuses ended up with better long-term prospects in the labor market than similar women who did not transfer.

This university is not unique. Four-year residential campuses have seen increases in spending for student services, including recreation and athletics, that far surpass those for academic instruction and financial aid. Some observers call it the "country-clubization of the American university." At midtier public universities, that means structuring academics around student social life. However, as Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, has noted, the proportion of the population seeking "a full-service institution with all the bells and whistles" is already in the minority.

Our study provides evidence of a large (and likely to grow) mismatch between what many four-year institutions provide and what most Americans seeking higher education need. By catering to the affluent minority, public universities are ceasing to serve as vehicles for economic mobility and instead reproducing social inequalities.

Laura Hamilton is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Elizabeth A. Armstrong is an associate professor of sociology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.