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A pair of researchers spent years following the progress of women from a single freshman dorm at a major state flagship university.
That led us to wonder what was going on in the flagship, that they performed so much better after they left. This led us to think about issues of fit. Were low-income students moving into a flagship university in a party dorm surrounded by affluent women with very poor advising set up to fail? —Elizabeth Armstrong, sociologist

When working-class parents dropped off their aspiring daughters at a freshman dorm at Midwestern University in 2004, they thought they were launching their kids on the broad path to the American dream. Get a college degree, they were told, and go to the best school you can. So they did.

What they didn't realize was that other parents were coming from the opposite direction, sending to that same dorm other more privileged, less academically serious daughters. And they didn't realize that the school was, in many ways, built for those other daughters. Nor did they realize that the collision of the scrappy, aspiring lower-class world with the comfortable but indifferent upper-class world was about to derail their daughtes' ambitions.

Rather than a clear path to the American dream, "Midwestern University," a pseudonym for a flagship state university in, not surprisingly, the Midwest, was actually a landmine-strewn maze.

At least that's what sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong, now at the University of Michigan, and Laura Hamilton, now at the University of California, Merced, found after they spent years tracking the progress of the women they found during that first year when Hamilton, then a graduate student, lived in the dorm.

Through clues buried in their book, it did not take long before it was an open secret that the Midwestern U. was the Indiana University, where both sociologists were based at the time. Indiana University did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

In "Paying for the Party," Armstrong and Hamilton outline their surprising discoveries — including the critical role of parental savvy, the seduction of the "party pathway" that worked for the wealthy few but created a destructive mirage for others, the toxic mix of easy majors and bad GPAs, and why less-privileged women benefited from transferring to less-prestigious state schools.

Savvy parents

One finding that surprised the researchers was the critical role parents played in success. This was more surprising, though no less important, than the fact that parental social and business networks and their ability to help financially after college mattered.

The right parents offered significant advantages, Armstrong said, especially if they had been to college. It was not uncommon for such parents to direct their kids to take harder courses at a community college over the summer, Armstrong said, "so grade distribution would be higher and more time to focus on that one course."

Children of savvy parents might know how important it is to participate in the right extracurricular activities to get into dental school, or how to network with professors, even turning confrontations about grades into a networking opportunity.

"Professors might add a point or two if they know you care and have high expectations of yourself," Hamilton said. "They learn your name, and that can unconsciously affect grading."

Those who didn't get that kind of advice, she said, "might find themselves channeled into super hard courses right away, or into courses that were very specific, and when that major didn't work out they didn't count for anything else."

Because parental support proved so critical, Hamilton concluded, "A college degree is not the great equalizer that people want it to be. Family resources matter a lot. Ideally there would be resources for less privileged to succeed."

"Our women found that they often did not get that kind of advice until it was too late," Armstrong added.

Party pathways

The dorm Hamilton lived in was a "party dorm," one of many on campus, and a feeder for those aspiring to join Greek sororities. The dorm was part of a party scene that seemed to go on all week and sapped the energy and focus of those who tried to balance the social scene with actual school work.

The pervasiveness of the party scene, the researchers concluded, is partly a result of the demographic targeted by the university: wealthy, out-of-state students willing to pay full tuition. Since all schools are scraping for money, they need to be competitive somehow. They will never get the students that go to an MIT or a UC Berkeley, so they appeal on other grounds.

This is reflected partly by money invested in gardens and waterfalls, recreation centers and climbing walls, rather than teaching and counseling, Hamilton said. She also cites the practice of "student aid leveraging," in which the school targets small scholarships to entice lucrative-paying out-of-state students rather than offering full or half tuition to less-privileged but less-lucrative in-state students.

A toxic mix

Students who like to party like soft majors, Hamilton said, but the less savvy students didn't realize that a soft major combined with a poor GPA is a dangerous mix. She singled out interior design, fashion merchandising, sport broadcasting (very popular) and a major called "tourism, hospitality and event planning" for special opprobrium.

All things considered, a college degree does have a huge payoff, Armstrong said, "but people don't take into account that an engineering degree from MIT with a 3.8 is not the same as a communications degree from Ball State with a 2.7 GPA."

"For privileged students, those majors are not a problem." Hamilton said. "Their dad will call other CEOs around the country and get them a job. Parents will put them up in NYC for a year until they find a job. But if you don't have those kinds of family resources, pretty soon you find out that to be a wedding planner you don't need a college degree, but you do need connections and that you have the sort of social capital and aesthetic sense that clients expect."

"These schools lure in lots of kids who are not that interested in college and offer lots of weak majors that appeal to these kids," said George Leef, a fellow at the North Carolina-based Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. "But then what? Lots of them end up working at Starbucks or Enterprise Rent a Car." He notes that Enterprise prides itself on hiring college graduates to do something that a well-trained high school graduate could do, and doesn't pay them much better, providing a ready if dispiriting outlet for graduates in soft majors and low GPAs.

A new start

Many of the women sucked into the party pathway ended up with weak majors and/or bad GPAs, and without parental connections often ended up in low-paying undesirable jobs. One who took biology, a serious major, finished with a 3.0 GPA and was surprised to learn that this ruled out dental school. She ended up taking a job as a dental assistant.

More successful, oddly, were the women who left the flagship university for far less prestigious regional campuses that turned out to be free from the distractions of partying and social hierarchy, where they were able to shift to practical majors like teaching or nursing that produced real jobs straight out of college.

"We assumed that they were washed out," Armstrong said. "But as we kept talking to them we realized most had transferred to four-year branch campuses and kind of got back on track." It took longer for these transfers to graduate, but they had less debt and better employability than those of similar profiles who stayed.

"That led us to wonder what was going on in the flagship," Armstrong added, "that they performed so much better after they left. This led us to think about issues of fit. Were low-income students moving into a flagship university in a party dorm surrounded by affluent women with very poor advising set up to fail?"

The fact that several women did better at lower-level schools did not surprise George Leef, who said Pope Center has been arguing for years that the risks and benefits of higher education are widely misunderstood. "It's going to be very hard to get people to realize that there are many factors that go into finding the right college, and those U.S. News rankings are utterly irrelevant in that decision," Leef said.

The regret of those who did not get that memo is perhaps best expressed by a father Hamilton spoke with who said, "It's like one of these things we see on TV. They look really good, and then you buy it and bring it home and it doesn't work at all like we thought it would. What we were sold is not what my daughter got."

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