College, the great unequalizer
No doubt by now you’ve finished last month’s assigned reading, Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” for our spring-semester course on Stratification in America. I’m sorry about the length (and the Amazon back-order problem), but I’m sure that the 696 pages of inheritance-data analysis and Émile Zola references flew by. And the good news is that you don’t need to worry about the term paper, because my fellow Elite Media Pundits and I have written about 330,000 words on the book that you can just crib, copy and repurpose.
The other good news is that your next assignment is much shorter — only 344 pages this time. Also, it’s possibly a little sexier than Piketty (his shirt-unbuttoned photos notwithstanding), with fewer equations and a little more human interest.
The title is “Paying for the Party,” and the subtitle is “How College Maintains Inequality.” (I can tell, you’re waking up already.) The authors, Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, and a team of researchers embedded themselves in a freshman dormitory at an unnamed high-profile Midwestern state school and then kept up with a group of female students through college and into graduate or professional life.
Their project, as conceived, was supposed to be about sex and romance. In the end, though, it turned out to be mostly about class.
That’s because what the authors discovered were the many ways in which collegiate social life, as embraced by students and blessed by the university, works to disadvantage young women (and no doubt young men, too) who need their education to be something other than a four-year-long spree. Instead of being a great equalizer, “Paying for the Party” argues, the American way of college rewards those who come not just academically but socially prepared, while treating working-class students more cruelly, and often leaving them adrift.
Much of this treatment is meted out through the power of the campus party scene, the boozy, hook-up-happy world of Greek life. This “party pathway,” the authors write, is “a main artery through the university,” and its allure is the reason many affluent out-of-state enrollees choose the university in question in the first place.
Such party-pathway students aren’t particularly motivated academically, but because they have well-off parents and clear-enough career goals they don’t necessarily need to be, and because they don’t require much financial aid they’re crucial to the university’s bottom line. (Their college careers, the authors write, depend on “an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of each other.”)
The party pathway’s influence, though, is potentially devastating for less well-heeled students. Some, dubbed “wannabes” in the book, are pulled into a social whirl that undercuts their practical aspirations — encouraging them to change majors (from elementary education to sports broadcasting, say) to imitate their cooler peers, pushing them into sexual situations they don’t know how to navigate, forcing their parents “to dig deep” for “sorority fees, spring break trips and bar tabs” and saddling them with large post-collegiate debts.
Others, who can’t keep up socially or fit in at all, simply end up isolated and persistently unhappy. (Overall, the most successful working-class students were those who transferred to less-prestigious schools instead of staying at the State U.)
Because you’re fresh off reading Piketty, you’ll probably see some of his left-wing analysis of class stratification illustrated in this story. The party pathway is designed for the daughters of both the 1 percent and of what Piketty calls the “petits rentiers” — families that are affluent but not exorbitantly rich. And its impact on student fortunes vividly demonstrates how inherited capital can reproduce and ratify privilege, even in an institution notionally devoted to democratic virtues and the common good.
But this reading assignment, unlike “Capital,” gets at a point about class hierarchies that social conservatives are more likely to appreciate. “Paying for the Party” is also a story about the socioeconomic consequences of cultural permissiveness — about what happens, who wins and who loses, when a youth culture in which the only (official) moral rule is consent meets a corporate-academic university establishment that has deliberately retreated from any moralistic, disciplinary role.
The losers are students ill equipped for the experiments in youthful dissipation that are now accepted as every well-educated millennial’s natural birthright. The winners, meanwhile, are living proof of how a certain kind of libertinism can be not only an expression of class privilege, but even a weapon of class warfare.
By this I mean that an upper class that practices and models bourgeois virtues — not only thrift and diligence but chastity and sobriety — will be more permeable, less self-protected and self-perpetuating, than an upper class that tells the aspirational that they can’t climb the ladder unless they join the party first.
Especially if no one mentions, until the tab comes due, that they’ll be the only ones who really pay for it.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.