Monica grew up in a small, struggling Midwestern community, population 3,000, that was once a booming factory town.

She was from a working-class family, and paid for most of her education at Midwest U, a “moderately selective” residential university, herself. She worked two jobs, sometimes over 40 hours a week, to afford in-state tuition. Going out-of-state, or to a pricey private school, was simply out of the question without a large scholarship. Attending MU was even a stretch; one year there cost as much as four years at the regional campus near her hometown.

Karen grew up in the same small town as Monica, but in a solidly middle-class family. Her college-educated parents could afford to provide more financial assistance. But even though MU was only three hours away, her father “wasn’t too thrilled” about her going so far from home. He had attended a small religious school that was only 10 minutes away.

Contexts Podcast

Listen to the Contexts Podcast interview with Laura Hamilton

Neither Karen nor Monica was academically well prepared for college. Both had good, but not stellar, grades and passable SAT scores, which made admission to a more selective school unlikely. Given the lower cost, ease of admission, and opportunity to commute from home, they might have started at the regional campus. However, MU offered, as Monica’s mother put it, a chance to “go away and experience college life.” Karen refused to look at any other school because she wanted to leave home. As she noted, “I really don’t think I’m a small town girl.” Monica’s family was betting on MU as the best place for her to launch her dream career as a doctor.

Karen and Monica’s stories offer us a glimpse into the college experiences of average, in-state students at large, mid-tier public universities. Though they struggled to gain entrance to the flagship campus, they soon found that the structure of social and academic life there served them poorly — and had deleterious effects.

The Great Mismatch

Most four-year residential colleges and universities in the United States are designed to serve well-funded students, who have minimal (if any) caretaking responsibilities, and who attend college full-time after they graduate from high school.

Yet only a minority of individuals who pursue postsecondary education in the United States fit this profile. There is a great gap between what the vast majority of Americans need and what four-year institutions offer them.

This mismatch is acutely visible at Midwest U, where Karen and Monica started their college careers. Almost half of those attending four-year colleges find themselves at schools like this one. Students from modest backgrounds who have above average, but not exceptional, academic profiles attend state flagship universities because they believe such schools offer a surefire route to economic security.

Public universities were founded to enable mobility, especially among in-state populations of students—which contributes to their legitimacy in the eyes of the public. In an era of declining state funding, schools like Midwest U have raised tuition and recruited more out-of-state students. They especially covet academically accomplished, ambitious children of affluent families.

As sociologist Mitchell Stevens describes in Creating a Class, elite institutions also pursue such students. While observing a small, private school, Stevens overhead an admissions officer describe an ideal applicant: “He’s got great SATs [and] he’s free [not requiring any financial aid]…. He helps us in every way that’s quantifiable.” Once private colleges skim off affluent, high-performing students, large, middle-tier, public universities are left to compete for the tuition dollars of less studious students from wealthy families.

How, we wondered, do in-state students fare in this context? To find out, for over five years we followed a dormitory floor of female students through their college careers and into the workforce, conducted an ethnography of the floor, and interviewed the women and their parents. What we found is that schools like MU only serve a segment of their student body well — affluent, socially-oriented, state students — to the detriment of typical in-state students like Karen and Monica.

“I’m supposed to get drunk”

Monica and Karen approached the housing application process with little information, and were unprepared for what they encountered when they were assigned to a room in a “party dorm.” At MU, over a third of the freshman class is housed in such dorms. Though minimal partying actually took place in the heavily policed residence halls, many residents partied off-site, typically at fraternities, returning in the wee hours drunk and loud. Affluent students — both in and out-of-state — often requested rooms in party dorms, based on the recommendations of their similarly social siblings and friends.

Party dorms are a pipeline to the Greek system, which dominates campus life. Less than 20 percent of the student body at MU is involved in a fraternity or sorority, but these predominately white organizations enjoy a great deal of power. They own space in central campus areas, across from academic buildings and sports arenas. They monopolize the social life of first-year students, offering underage drinkers massive, free supplies of alcohol, with virtual legal impunity. They even enjoy special ties to administrators, with officers sitting on a special advisory board to the dean of students.

Over 40 percent of Monica and Karen’s floor joined sororities their first year. The pressure to rush was so intense that one roommate pair who opted out posted a disclaimer on their door, asking people to stop bugging them about it. The entire campus — including academic functions — often revolved around the schedule of Greek life. When a math test for a large, required class conflicted with women’s rush, rather than excusing a group of women from a few rush events, the test itself was rescheduled.

Monica, like most economically disadvantaged students, chose not to rush a sorority, discouraged by the mandatory $60 t-shirt, as well as by the costly membership fees. Karen, who was middle class, had just enough funds to make rushing possible. However, she came to realize that Greek houses implicitly screen for social class. She pulled out her boots — practical rain boots that pegged her as a small town, in-state girl instead of an affluent, out-of-state student with money and the right taste in clothing. They were a “dead give-away,” she said. She soon dropped out of rush.

Like all but a few students on the 53-person floor, Monica and Karen chose to participate in the party scene. Neither drank much in high school. Nor did they arrive armed with shot glasses or party-themed posters, as some students did. They partied because, as a woman from a similar background put it, “I’m supposed to get drunk every weekend. I’m supposed to go to parties every weekend.” With little party experience, and few contacts in the Greek system, Monica and Karen were easy targets for fraternity men’s sexual disrespect. Heavy alcohol consumption helped to put them at ease in otherwise uncomfortable situations. “I pretty much became an alcoholic,” said Monica. “I was craving alcohol all the time.”

Their forced attempts to participate in the party scene showed how poorly it suited their needs. “I tried so hard to fit in with what everybody else was doing here,” Monica explained. “I think one morning I just woke up and realized that this isn’t me at all; I don’t like the way I am right now.” She felt it forced her to become more immature. “Growing up to me isn’t going out and getting smashed and sleeping around,” she lamented. Partying is particularly costly for students of lesser means, who need to grow up sooner, cannot afford to be financially irresponsible,
and need the credentials and skills that college offers.

Academic Struggles and “Exotic” Majors

Partying also takes its toll on academic performance, and Monica’s poor grades quickly squelched her pre-med dreams. Karen, who hoped to become a teacher, also found it hard to keep up. “I did really bad in that math class, the first elementary ed math class,” one of three that were required. Rather than retake the class, Karen changed her major to one that was popular among affluent, socially-oriented students on the floor: sports broadcasting.

She explained, “I’m from a really small town and it’s just all I ever really knew was jobs that were around me, and most of those are teachers.” A woman on her floor was majoring in sports broadcasting, which Karen had never considered. “I would have never thought about that. And so I saw hers, and I was like that’s something that I really like. One of my interests is sports, watching them, playing them,” she reasoned. “I could be a sportscaster on ESPN if I really wanted to.”

Karen’s experience shows the seductive appeal of certain “easy majors.” These are occupational and professional programs that are often housed in their own schools and colleges. They are associated with a higher overall GPA and, as sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report in Academically Adrift, lower levels of learning than majors in the more challenging sciences and humanities housed in colleges of arts and sciences.

In many easy majors, career success also depends on personal characteristics (such as appearance, personality, and aesthetic taste) that are developed outside of the classroom— often prior to entering college. Socially-oriented students flock to fields like communications, fashion, tourism, recreation, fitness, and numerous “business-lite” options, which are often linked to sports or the arts, rather than the competitive business school. About a third of the student body majored in business, management, marketing, communications, journalism, and related subfields.

Karen’s switch to sports broadcasting gave her more time to socialize. But education is a more practical major that translates directly into a career; hiring rests largely on the credential. In contrast, success in sports broadcasting is dependent on class-based characteristics — such as family social ties to industry insiders. Several of Karen’s wealthier peers secured plum internships in big cities because their parents made phone calls for them; Karen could not even land an unpaid internship with the Triple-A baseball team located 25 minutes from her house.

No one Karen encountered on campus helped her to assess the practicality of a career in this field. Her parents were frustrated that she had been persuaded not to graduate with a recognizable marketable skill. As her mother explained, “She gets down there and you start hearing all these exotic sounding majors…. I’m not sure quite what jobs they’re going to end up with.” Her mother was frustrated that Karen “went to see the advisor to make plans for her sophomore year, and they’re going, ‘Well, what’s your passion?’” Her mother was not impressed. “How many people do their passion? To me, that’s more what you do for a hobby…. I mean most people, that’s not what their job is.”

Halfway through college, when Karen realized she could not get an internship, much less a job, in sports broadcasting, her parents told her to switch back to education. The switch was costly: it was going to take her two more years to complete. As her mother complained, “When you’re going through the orientation…they’re going, ‘oh, most people change their major five times.’ And they make it sound like it’s no big deal. But yeah, they’re making big bucks by kids changing.”

Leaving Midwest U Behind

Monica left MU after her first year. “I was afraid if I continued down there that I would just go crazy and either not finish school, or get myself in trouble,” she explained. “And I just didn’t want to do that.” She immediately enrolled in a beauty school near her home. Dissatisfied with the income she earned as a hairstylist, she later entered a community college to complete an associate degree in nursing. She paid for her nursing classes as she studied, but had 10,000 dollars in student loan debt from her time at MU. Still, her debt burden was substantially smaller than if she had stayed there; some of her MU peers had amassed over 50,000 dollars in loans by graduation.

Because her GPA was too low to return to elementary education at MU, Karen transferred to a regional college during her fourth year. Since the classes she took for sports broadcasting did not fulfill any requirements, it took her six years to graduate. Karen’s parents, who reported that they spent the first 10 years of their married life paying off their own loans, took out loans to cover most of the cost, and anticipated spending even longer to finance their daughter’s education.

Monica and Karen were not the only ones on their dormitory floor to leave MU. Nine other in-state women, the majority of whom were from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, did as well. The only out-of-state student who transferred left for a higher-ranked institution. While we were concerned that the in-state leavers, most of whom were moving down the ladder of prestige to regional campuses, would suffer, they actually did better than in-state women from less privileged families who stayed at MU. Their GPAs improved, they selected majors with a more direct payoff, and they were happier overall.

The institutions to which women moved played a large role in this transformation. As one leaver described the regional campus to which she transferred, it “doesn’t have any fraternities or sororities. It only has, like, 10 buildings.” But, she said, “I just really love it.” One of the things she loved was that nobody cared about partying. “They’re there just to graduate and get through.” It prioritized the needs of a different type of student: “Kids who have lower social economic status, who work for their school.”

Without the social pressures of MU, it was possible to, as Karen put it, “get away from going out all the time, and refocus on what my goal was for this part of my life.” Few majors like sports broadcasting and fashion merchandising were available, reducing the possible ways to go astray academically. Those who attended regional or community colleges trained to become accountants, teachers, social workers, nurses or other health professionals. At the conclusion of our study, they had better employment prospects than those from similar backgrounds who stayed at MU.

The Importance of Institutional Context

It is tempting to assume that academic success is determined, in large part, by what students bring with them—different ability levels, resources, and orientations to college life. But Monica and Karen’s stories demonstrate that what students get out of college is also organizationally produced. Students who were far more academically gifted than Monica or Karen sometimes floundered at MU, while others who were considerably less motivated breezed through college. The best predictor of success was whether there was a good fit between a given student’s resources and agendas, and the structure of the university.

Monica and Karen’s struggles at MU can be attributed, in part, to the dominance of a “party pathway” at that institution. These organizational arrangements—a robust, university-supported Greek system, and an array of easy majors—are designed to attract and serve affluent, socially-oriented students. The party pathway is not a hard sell; the idea that college is about fun and partying is celebrated in popular culture and actively promoted by leisure and alcohol industries. The problem is that this pathway often appeals to students for whom it is ill suited.

Regardless of what they might want, students from different class backgrounds require different things. What Monica and Karen needed was a “mobility pathway.” When resources are limited, mistakes—whether a semester of grades lost to partying, or courses that do not count toward a credential— can be very costly. Monica and Karen needed every course to move them toward a degree that would translate directly into a job.

They also needed more financial aid than they received— grants, not loans—and much better advising. A skilled advisor who understood Karen’s background and her abilities might have helped her realize that changing majors was a bad idea. But while most public universities provide such advising support for disadvantaged students, these programs are often small, and admit only the best and brightest of the disadvantaged—not run-of-the-mill students like Monica and Karen.

Monica, Karen, and others like them did not find a mobility pathway at MU. Since university resources are finite, catering to one population of students often comes at a cost to others, especially if their needs are at odds with one another. When a party pathway is the most accessible avenue through a university, it is easy to stumble upon, hard to avoid, and it crowds out other pathways.

As Monica and Karen’s stories suggest, students are not necessarily better served by attending the most selective college they can get into. The structure of the pathways available at a given school greatly influences success. When selecting a college or university, families should consider much more than institutional selectivity. They should also assess whether the school fits the particular student’s needs.

Students and parents with limited financial resources should look for schools with high retention rates among minority and first-generation students, where there are large and accessible student services for these populations. Visible Greek systems and reputations as party schools, in contrast, should be red flags.

Families should investigate what majors are available, whether they require prerequisites, and, to the extent it is possible, what additional investments are required to translate a particular major into a job. Are internships required? Will the school link the student to job opportunities, or are families expected to do so on their own? These are some questions they should ask.

Collectively, the priorities of public universities and other higher education institutions that support “party pathways” should be challenged. Reducing the number of easy majors, pulling university support from the Greek system, and expanding academic advising for less privileged students would help. At federal and state levels, greater commitment to the funding of higher education is necessary. If public universities are forced to rely on tuition and donations for funding, they will continue to appeal to those who can pay full freight. Without these changes, the mismatch between what universities offer and what most postsecondary students need is likely to continue.


Recommended Resources

Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Uses survey data from 24 institutions to offer an evaluation of what students are really learning during their time at college.

Bowen, William G., Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson. Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton University Press, 2009). Offers a systematic analysis of the factors shaping college completion at American public universities.

Brint, Steven (ed.). The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University (Stanford University Press, 2002). Provides an assessment of how postsecondary education is changing, the forces behind such change, and the future prospects for the sector from top scholars of higher education.

Deil-Amen, Regina. “The ‘Traditional’ College Student: A Smaller and Smaller Minority and Its Implications for Diversity and Access Institutions,” paper prepared for the Mapping Broad-Access Higher Education conference (2011). Available online at cepa.stanford.edu. Discusses the diverse group of non-traditional college students who are marginalized despite forming a majority of the college-going population.

Stevens, Mitchell. Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites (Harvard University Press, 2007). Provides an inside perspective on how admissions officers at elite private col- leges construct an incoming class.

Stuber, Jenny. Inside the College Gates: How Class and Culture Matter in Higher Education (Lexington Books, 2011). Offers a comparison of how college social life and extracurricular activities contribute to social class inequities at a large public and small private institution.

Purchase this article