Higher Education and Social Inequality

Once students arrive on campus, four-year residential universities are thought to serve as a meritocratic gateway to the economic, social, intellectual, and health-related returns of a college degree. However, as scholars and the public are increasingly realizing, college does not have the same returns for everyone, and may even leave some students worse off (in terms of debt and financial security) than when they started. This variation cannot be explained entirely by academic ability or social class, as more reproductive models of educational stratification might suggest. Instead, these factors intersect with the organization of the university to create different academic and career trajectories.

Elizabeth A. Armstrong and I are equal-authors on Paying for the Party: How College Creates Inequality, published by Harvard University Press and supported by a Spencer Foundation Grant. Drawing on a five-year ethnographic and interview study of college life on Midwest University’s campus, we examine how a cohort of women living on the same dormitory floor exited college with vastly different life prospects. Delving deeply into the relationship between students and the university, Paying for the Party develops a rich understanding of students’ college experiences in a tiny slice of university life and situates them within the campus and within the larger postsecondary system. The book discusses three organizational pathways supported by the university—each associated with the agendas of a different group of students. With the Greek system at its center, the party pathway is the most accessible, visible, and well-resourced route through Midwest University. Mobility and professional pathways are relatively underdeveloped and inaccessible. The party pathway, designed to meet the needs of the affluent and socially oriented, structures the academic and social experiences of all students, putting the majority at a disadvantage. Disappointing outcomes, especially among in-state students of modest means, are organizationally produced.

In the book we argue that Midwest University is not unique. The increasing reliance of public universities on the tuition dollars of affluent students has significantly reduced the ability of most four-year residential universities to offer what they once promised—the opportunity for anyone, no matter where they are from and who they are, to work hard and get ahead. Our study provides evidence of a large (and likely growing) mismatch between what many four-year institutions provide and what the vast majority of Americans seeking higher education need. The title of the book reflects the cost of this mismatch. When universities direct resources to attracting and serving affluent, socially oriented students—“paying for the party” if you will, other students and families bear the cost. They place their faith in system that does not serve them well, and pay the price with a lower quality education and limited career options. American society also loses too, as the potential of students from ordinary means remains unrealized.