Posts Tagged ‘Paying for the Party’


That was my primary response after reading Reihan Salam’s recent argument at Slate that colleges should be fined when former students default on their student loans. Citing the work of sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton in their book Paying for the Party, Salam notes:

One of their most striking findings is that standard college advising consistently failed to meet the needs of students from modest backgrounds. Students from affluent backgrounds had extensive social networks at their disposal, which helped them turn degrees in “party majors” like sports communication and broadcasting or interior decorating into jobs in glamorous, or glamorous-sounding, fields. Students who didn’t have parents familiar with the ins and outs of higher education to help them navigate the system found themselves at the mercy of incompetent, indifferent, and overworked advisers who routinely led them astray.

His solution? Punish schools for failing their students. He writes:

A good first step would be to punish colleges that have failed their students, as Andrew P. Kelly and Alex Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute have suggested. The basic idea is that if a student defaults on her student loans, the higher education institution she attended should pay a penalty. The genius of this idea, as Kelly has explained, is that it would make colleges think twice about their lackluster advising, even if the penalty were quite small. Colleges would suddenly have an excellent reason to guide students to majors that would help them gain marketable skills.

I see so many problems with this proposal that it is hard to list them all (for a start: financial punishments for schools that serve students with the highest risk has had terrible results for K-12 education, you can lead a student to a major but you can’t make her sign up for classes, if students graduate they might be less likely to default so pressure to pass everybody would increase) but for now I will focus on Salam’s apparent assumption that all schools are the same.

Salam may be surprised to find out that most colleges and universities are not like Midwest University in Paying for the Party. In fact, the middle- and working-class women who were most successful in Armstrong and Hamilton’s study were those who transferred to smaller schools closer to home where they did not face pressure to adhere to a lifestyle that they could not afford (in the short- or long-term). In addition to public flagships there are regional universities and a whole range of liberal arts colleges. Salam doesn’t seem to understand this, writing as if a college is a college and concluding with support for Obama’s proposed college ratings, even arguing that “he hasn’t gone far enough. It is egregious that students, parents, and taxpayers are the ones who suffer when colleges don’t do their jobs while the colleges in question are left untouched. We simply can’t let them get away with it anymore.”

If only colleges would do their jobs! Those jobs are apparently to prepare students for work by ensuring that they graduate from college with the right degrees. The difference between a college graduate and somebody with “some college,” then, lies solely in whether or not a given student received good advice, took that advice, received (not “earned”!) passing grades, and received (not “earned”!) a diploma, marking him or her as suitable for high-wage employment. Except…

I have spent the past ten years teaching college students. I have a job that privileges teaching and advising. I do everything I can to help my students succeed. The majority of them do. Some of them, however, do not. I can think of a handful of students in the course of my teaching career who simply were not prepared to be successful college students. In some cases, students had insufficient preparation in high school. In others, they were not emotionally ready for college or had family obligations that prevented them from focusing on their courses. Sometimes, these students took the same course with me multiple times and failed each time. Often, these students have failed to complete their degrees because their GPAs were insufficient to remain enrolled.

In my experience, the students who have failed at college for these reasons had a strong desire to succeed but could not make it happen. They were not alone, though. In addition to me and their other professors they had advisors working closely with them. They also received help through academic probation programs and took advantage of free tutors, writing centers, and counseling. It is true that they failed as college students, but it is absolutely not true that their institutions failed them.

I do not mean to downplay the factors that led some students in Armstrong and Hamilton’s study not to do well. There are clearly structural changes that Midwestern University could implement that would benefit students. Implementing the same changes on every campus, though, would be ridiculous. Sort of like trying to use a single rating to measure the success of graduates across all departments at a college or university…

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed.

Read Full Post »

Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber has a nice discussion of Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton:

The authors lived for a year in a “party” dorm in a large midwestern flagship public university (not mine) and kept up with the women in the dorm till after they had graduated college. The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds. The facilitatory methods include: reasonably scrupulous enforcement of alcohol bans in the dorms (thus enhancing the capacity of the fraternities to monopolize control of illegal drinking and, incidentally, forcing women to drink in environments where they are more vulnerable to sexual assault); providing easy majors which affluent students can take which won’t interfere with their partying, and which will lead to jobs for them, because they have connections in the media or the leisure industries that will enable them to get jobs without good credentials; and assigning students to dorms based on choice (my students confirm that dorms have reputations as party, or nerdy, or whatever, dorms that ensure that they retain their character over time, despite 100% turnover in residents every year).

The problem is that other students (all their subjects are women), who do not have the resources to get jobs in the industries to which the easy majors orient them, and who lack the wealth to keep up with the party scene, and who simply cannot afford to have the low gpas that would be barriers to their future employment, but which are fine for affluent women, get caught up in the scene. They are, in addition, more vulnerable to sexual assault, and less insulated (because they lack family money) against the serious risks associated with really screwing up. The authors tell stories of students seeking upward social mobility switching their majors from sensible professional majors to easy majors that lead to jobs available only through family contacts, not through credentials. Nobody is alerting these students to the risks they are taking. So the class inequalities at entry are exacerbated by the process. Furthermore, the non-party women on the party floor are, although reasonably numerous, individually isolated—they feel like losers, not being able to keep up with the heavy demands of the party scene. The authors document that the working class students who thrive are those who transfer to regional colleges near their birth homes.

I wonder how these processes work at smaller schools that emphasize the one-on-one advising of students. Is providing warning about majors enough, or is it likely to be seen by students as not supportive of their career goals?

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed.

Read Full Post »