The Price of Partying
Can partying give you a leg up after college?
For most of us, probably not. But for well-connected, wealthy students, honing social skills and networking with similarly well-connected students provides advantages that few have access to.
This is one of Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton’s interesting findings in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. In their long-term study of students at a Midwestern state university, they found that for college women from well-to-do families with ample business connections, academic achievement—or even a student’s major—mattered very little in the long run.
Students whose families helped them land key internships with family friends or relatives in prestigious occupations had a foot in the door that most students did not. This often translated into a job after college, landed in part because of family connections once again. The study also found that families with resources to support their young adult children--like paying for living expenses in large, expensive cities where young adults probably couldn’t live off of their starting salaries. Or at least not live the lifestyle to which they were accustomed.
Armstrong & Hamilton note that the ability to socialize during and after college enabled students to mingle with other similarly privileged people. These privileges start early. Such students feel comfortable around other people from wealthy backgrounds, have the ability to carry on conversations about topics of mutual interest, and perhaps most importantly, can appear to fit in to these social circles by wearing high-end clothing and accessories.
Does this mean that you should work more at partying than your class work? Unless you or your family has very deep pockets and professional networks, the answer is decidedly no.
The authors of the study found that even students who come from stable middle-income families pay a price for choosing what they term the “party pathway.” These students found that their grades and majors mattered a whole lot more than they did for their wealthier peers on the job market. While their families might have been able to pay for their college tuition and living expenses, that support did not continue after graduation, making large expensive cities—and the sometimes glamorous careers within those cities— all but out of reach on a starting salary. If their grades suffered as a result of their partying, attempts to further their education in graduate school might not be possible either.
Some students had to take out student loans to finance their education, which they were expected to pay after graduation. If they belonged to sororities, this often meant more fees (and parties) that they had to finance and pay back for years to come.
Not all students are interested in or have access to the party pathway. Lower income students who had to work evenings and weekends often didn’t have the time. Even if they had an interest, Armstrong & Hamilton observed that they were often ignored by the socialites on their floor and not invited to go out with them. In a social environment where clothes and accessories mattered, even economically stable students might not have the clothes and accessories that marked them as high status.
And status mattered quite a bit at the college the authors studied. In addition to expensive clothes, affording things like tanning salons and other cosmetic enhancements marked a woman as high status. This made it more likely that other similarly situated students would befriend her, and that she might join a high-status sorority.
Perhaps most troubling, women who were not considered high status were often more at-risk of sexual assault. The authors note:
Affluent women arrived at college well versed in a long list of practical party rules imparted by mothers and older siblings…. Having a high rank in the campus social scene also protected them, as men were held more accountable to well-connected women. Indeed, insulting a highly ranked woman in a top sorority was akin to affronting her whole sorority, and disrespecting a girlfriend or friend of fraternity member was equally risky (p. 91).
The authors note that well-connected women might have attended frat parties in high school and have more of a sense of what kinds of clothing would mark them as attractive rather than as simply “available.”
Before reading this book, I had very little insight into the party pathway—despite spending most of my life working on a college campus and/or attending college. It never appealed to me, and the authors certainly found others who could afford to be part of the scene who had little interest in participating.
I was responsible for paying part of my tuition and was all too aware of how much it cost and how much it would cost in the future to skip classes or do any less than my best work. Some of Armstrong & Hamilton’s participants ended up going back to take classes towards other majors and reported a very different perspective on college when they were paying for it.
Either way, someone pays for the party. The authors describe how those who can afford it can partake a party-driven college experience, presuming they do just enough work to remain academically eligible. For everyone else, the party pathway can be very costly—economically, but also socially and emotionally for the many who feel alienated and disconnected during their college years.