The Most Depressing Book I Have Ever Read
The current contender for this headline is Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality by sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton.
The depressions shall be in list form:
1. The book covers a group of young women who lived in a “party dorm” at Indiana University from move-in day to post-graduation or dropping out.
2. The women are divided into various groups: Socialites, Wannabes, Strivers, Leavers, Overachievers and Underachievers. These are the main groups.
3. The socialiates seemingly attend IU because it is known as a party school and they are more interested in gaining social capital than anything else. The only thing they need from college/university is a diploma. IU has enough respect without being too hard. These women often spent most of their time focused on the Greek scene. They majored in “business lite” subjects like interior decorating, event planning, sports broadcasting, etc. They often had low GPAs but it did not matter because they got jobs because dad was a CFO and able to talk to another CFO. They were also heavily subsidized by their parents post-graduation and able to live well beyond their entry-level paying jobs in major cities. Plus they tended to date young investment bankers. They also had extensive knowledge networks in college that allowed them to do background research on potential boyfriends and demand respect from fraternity bro-dudes. The authors mention that these majors are usually not found at elite universities including other major flagship universities like Michigan and Cal. Education was also considered a lite-major by the authors for some reason. Only 17 percent of Indiana’s students were part of the Greek scene but the Greeks dominated the social scene enough that the college moved academic events around to make things easier for Greek events according to the authors.
4. The Wannabes came from more modest backgrounds. Often their parents were the local elite like teachers or doctors in a working class town. These women did not have the connections or social capital to be able to gain jobs using the business-lite majors but they often choose to major in those subjects to show they were equal to the socialites. They also lacked information networks on which boys to avoid. Post-grad, these women found themselves stuck in their hometowns. One needed to spend several more years in undergrad to switch back to an elementary education major.
5. There was only one striver. Her dad had some college education and was able to inform her about support-programs for first generation college students. She had an academic bent that her professors caught on and encouraged. She also received scholarships instead of loans. She was encouraged to apply to PhD programs but only got into one and without financial aid because she was competing against students from the Ivy League and small liberal arts schools. The striver eventually decided on law school at Indiana. Her father was also able to help her find a off-campus apartment because she disliked the party dorm.
6. The Leavers came from small-working class towns and were the first people in their families to attend college. No one directed them to the programs mentioned above. The Leavers had boyfriends at home who personified Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men. The authors mentioned that IU’s program for first gen college students is lacking compared to similar institutions. They often decided to major in the business lite subjects because it was fun and later realized that they did not have the aesthetic qualities or tastes that would allow them to succeed as wedding planners. IU was also the first time said students were exposed to Jews and LGBT people in substantial populations. Only one leaver met a Jewish person before, a guy who came to her hometown to teach music. He was treated so badly that he left rather quickly. These women often took out their anger over class issues through very ugly and vocal anti-Semitism and homophobia. One took to vandalizing LGBT posters. I imagine that they left college feeling more anti-Semitic and homophobic. One leaver had a Jewish socialite roommate and it seemed to be a never ending cycle of aggressions and misunderstandings. Jewish student excluded her poorer roommate, poorer roommate responded with stereotypical anti-Semitic Jewish questions (Do you have horns?), Jewish student did not want to deal with anti-Semitism, etc. The leavers also were very anti-Semitic to the Jewish grad students assisting on the book.
7. The achievers were groomed for success. They had parents with professional jobs aka income-rich and were expected to become the same. Their parents were heavily involved in the college process. One ended up in dentistry school. The underachiever’s parents seemingly did not groom her for academic success. She graduated with a science degree but her GPA was too low for any dentistry school. She ended up working as a dental assistant for 11 dollars an hour. This job did not require a college degree. There seem to be great differences in outcome based on relatively minor differences in background. Everyone in this group came from the middle and upper-middle class but outcome was largely dependent based on parental occupation. The achievers had parents who were professors, doctors, lawyers, and MBA holders. The underachievers had parents who were teachers and sales managers it seems.
The book is depressing because there is seemingly no solution to these issues. My guess is interestingly that a first-generation college student like the Leavers might be better off at an expensive private school like Vassar or Princeton over Indiana University because they would be surrounded by the achievers/strivers and there would be no lite majors to tempt them and in the case of some small liberal arts schools, no social scene dominated by the Greek scene. Smaller colleges might also notice more when a student is falling between the cracks. There are no 500 person lectures led by TAs at schools like Vassar.
There is also an acknowledgment among the professors that everyone needs to teach 101 classes including senior faculty. The authors of Paying for the Party noted that at Indiana and similar schools intro and remedial classes are always given to lower status faculty like adjuncts, professors coming out of retirement for extra cash, and others without research. Maybe we need to bring back the teaching college. We keep on talking about how college is not for everyone and who should and who should not attend university. A lot of people seem to think that government-backed loans are the cause or part of the cause for skyrocketing tuition. I am not sure dialing this back would reduce tuition.
My ideal solution would be if the Socialites were the students who did not attend university and instead went straight to work using their parent’s connections because majors and GPAs were seemingly unimportant to them. I don’t expect this to happen though. It seems more likely that the strivers and leavers will just be locked out of the college system and potentially stuck in their hometowns even more with less geographic and economic mobility.