Paying for the Party by Elizabeth A. Armstrong

Subtitled: How College Maintains Inequality.

Paying for the Party is an ethnographic study of a so-called “party floor” at a midwestern university in one of the big football conferences. It looks at the effects of party culture on the young women who live on the floor and comes up with some shocking conclusions about the ramifications for society at large. Hint: the meritocracy is a myth.

The author and her team identify three pathways through college life. The first, the party pathway, is the most visible. It tends to reward students who come from wealth and have social connections. Through the party pathway, these “socialites” hone their interpersonal skills so that they can succeed in personality-driven industries like media and tourism. “Wannabes” are those who are drawn in by the party pathway but lack the means that the socialites have, and for those women, the party pathway can lead to downward mobility.

The next pathway is the professional pathway. The authors found that this pathway was only accessible to top students, those who were prepared to compete for the limited resources. Students in this pathway could find their progress damaged by too much partying, again leading to downward mobility.

The final pathway is the mobility pathway, where students study a skill or a trade that translates into a direct job. An example would be nursing school. Here, the authors’ findings were truly shocking. The authors found that students pursuing the mobility pathway were better off at less prestigious branch campuses without a party pathway, because the class system of the party pathway ensured that mobility pathway students would be excluded from most of the social life on campus, and even relegated to inferior roles in relation to the socialites and wannabes.

As a homeschooler, I think a lot about nontraditional education. As I read through this book, I mused on the benefits of having my girls avoid the classic college experience. However, the book’s conclusion does point out that college is a place where connections are made in a way that can’t happen in a virtual classroom or even in a community college setting. I do hope that schools will take this book and its research seriously, but I have very little faith that any of them would actually dismantle the Greek system. There’s just too much money from wealthy alumni at stake.

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