Why Do Students Succeed Or Fail At College?

July 14th, 2013

From Teachers College Record On Line: by Erin E. Doran

Title: Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality
Author(s): Elizabeth A. Armstrong & Laura T. Hamilton
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674049578, Pages: 344, Year: 2013
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Why do some students leave college primed for success while others, perhaps strapped with debt and an unmarketable degree, leave wondering why they bothered with college in the first place?  Since the financial crisis that hit millennials especially hard started, much attention has been drawn to whether or not college is “worth it.”  In Paying for the Party, Armstrong and Hamilton take a different approach:  They look at the forces at play while students are in college and what implications choices, some made by them and some made for them, have on a group of female students from different classes and how those decisions impact students’ ability to reproduce or overcome class inequality.

In the introduction, the researchers provide an overview of their five-year longitudinal ethnography and interview study of 47 young women who moved into the “party dorm” at a flagship university in the midwest in the fall of 2005.   The researchers followed most of the students throughout the duration of their time in college, beginning at Midwest University (hereafter, MU). The theoretical model presented in the introduction informs the reader that individual and organizational characteristics as well as class projects were examined in order to draw conclusions about students’ stated goals and post-graduation outcomes.

Chapter One introduces the women of the study in more detail.  The authors provide information on their class background as well as what measures were used to sort women into different class groups (upper middle class, lower middle class, working class) and divided them into four categories:  the Primed to Party women were generally wealthier and for whom the party reputation of the school was important; the women who fell under Cultivated for Success came to MU with clear academic goals, often with parental help.  The third group called Motivated for Mobility comprised of lower middle class or working class students from rural, sometimes agricultural areas who believed that college education would provide them with upward social mobility.  The final group included those women who chose MU by default.

Chapter One presents the party pathway at MU dominated by Greek life. Armstrong and Hamilton identify other institutional factors that support the pathway including residential life and less rigorous academic programs that enable students to obtain a degree with minimal impact on their social calendars.  Chapter Three discusses Greek life in detail, specifically the process of rushing and the competition these women enter in the hopes of entering their choice sorority.  In Chapter Four, the authors describe the physical layout of the dormitory floor and how the layout contributed to the sorting of the participants.  Often, those women who entered sororities together or ran in the same social circles moved closer together, effectively shunning the women who did not fit in with similar ease…

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