25 years ago the historian and college president, Page Smith, wrote what I believe to be the best portrait of the emergent public university–Killing the Spirit:HIGHER EDUCATION IN AMERICA. Professor Smith highlights the unfortunate alliance among (1) the mass of students who wish to avoid learning in any serious intellectual sense of the word, (2) alumni who wish for ongoing positive identity with their alma mater based on an entertaining and successful athletic program, and (3) research-oriented faculty who find the teaching commitment associated with effective teaching and mentoring of undergraduates an unfortunate roadblock to a successful professional career.
Smith would be an appreciative reader of a new book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. What is so important about this book is its argument against a central myth that colleges encourage, viz,. that college attendance enhances democracy and creates a more equal occupational playing field. When President Obama sloppily touts the need to have more people attend college, he embodies this myth. He is apparently blind to the multiple developmental pathways presented to a freshman at a public university, the more popular of which enhance inequality. Let me explain a bit.
The authors of Paying for the Party lived in the residence hall of a flagship Midwestern university and conducted interviews with residents over a 5-year period. What they believe they saw is similar to what Page Smith describes, but different in an important regard. The amount of debt necessarily incurred by middle and lower class students is both a symbol of their disadvantage relative to other students on campus and a huge obstacle to their ability to overcome what is often a major skill disadvantage compared to what more affluent students bring to campus. As they incur piles of debt, they often have to work while attending class. But that hurdle is not the focus of the study.
The authors sadly report that universities spend a disproportionate amount of their funds appealing to the children of the affluent. These students are the largest cohort of future contributors to a resource-starved revenue flow that universities require to compensate for the demise of public funding of universities. The 2 sociologists organize their argument around 3 passage ways to adult life that universities provide: Party, Mobility, and Professional passageways. University administrators tend to pay the most attention to what the authors call the “party passageway.” Attracting large numbers of students requires tolerance of an image of fun and general pleasure-seeking consistent with what graduates reference when they describe college as the best moment in their lives.
The Greek system is a central player in providing the space for regular social events, access to alcohol that would not be tolerated in residence halls, and an oft-used source of “student opinion” used by administrators to determine what “students” want and need. Institutional support for the Greek system includes established communication links with Greek leaders, university sanctioned use of campus property, and sponsorship of events that are overwhelmingly Greek activities. The energies that could be devoted to enhancing the mobility of under-financed and poorly trained students are minimal in comparison. Such expenditures are made; they must be to maintain the image of the university as a democratizing force. But they are abysmally small in comparison to the resources provided to maintain the party passageway.
Easy majors, avenues for being excused from the more demanding courses like calculus, allowing students to drop courses until final grades are posted, low academic standards, and generally turning a blind eye to what happens in Greek housing units, together with “no Friday classes” so as not to interfere with the preferences of Thursday night party-goers all contribute to the success of the party passageway. A degree needs to be gained for sure, but with as little intellectual strain as possible, please. As is often the case, the defense against such charges is to cherry-pick with anecdotal evidence of students who do not wish to participate in the party passageway and whose achievements at public universities are formidable.
Affluent students possess the social capital, parental support, and contacts that permit them to move smoothly into a job after college. They do not need to endure a tough curriculum or the time-consuming struggle to think critically. But for universities to contribute to greater equality, they would need to focus on funding for less-affluent students and the kinds of labor-intensive mentoring that would enable them to overcome past training deficits, lack of parental know-how about career ladders. In short, universities would have to focus less on the resort-spa recreation centers on campus and more on the day to day impediments to a student’s staying and succeeding in the kinds of classes that would signal to employers that this learner is something special.
And as I read the book, I could not in any fashion disagree with the authors’ claim that, shades of Page Smith’s analysis, the sponsorship of the party passageway for students is ideal from the perspective of faculty who wish to become well-known scholars.