If you are a low-income prospective college student hoping a degree will help you move up in the world, you probably should not attend a moderately selective four-year research institution. The cards are stacked against you.
That’s the sobering bottom line of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press), a new book based on five years of interview research by Elizabeth A. Armstrong, an associate professor of sociology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan, and Laura T. Hamilton, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced.
It’s not entirely the colleges’ fault, Hamilton says. Declining state and federal support and rising tuition have made it critical to recruit students who can pay more (and who continue to donate after they leave). But the out-of-state and affluent students attending these colleges are not in it for the academics – those students are going to the Harvards, Michigans and Berkeleys of the world.
The students who end up at Midwestern University – a pseudonym for the flagship institution where Armstrong and Hamilton follow a group of women through their college careers, from the dorm floor to a year post-graduation – are socially minded. Thus, to lure and keep those students, institutions have come to structure their academic and social frameworks in a way that accommodates that population.