'Party Pathway' Leads Some College Students Astray
College students move into the dorms.
Credit: mangostock, Shutterstock

As high school seniors across the country tear open their college acceptance letters this month, a pair of researchers warns that party schools could be shortchanging some of their undergrads.

Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton for five years followed a group of 53 young women who started college on the same floor of a large dorm at an unnamed mid-tier public university in the Midwest.

In a new book based on their study, "Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality" (Harvard University Press), the researchers argue that young women are often drawn to the college experience these schools offer, but the culture of status-seeking, sororities, partying and a host of easy majors can create a divisive social environment that's just as catty as high school and quite distracting from achievement in the classroom.

Coasting down this seductive "party pathway" might be fine for students with a generous safety net, but it threatens to hold back students from less fortunate backgrounds, the authors say.

"The pressures these young women encounter make it very difficult for them to focus on academics," Armstrong, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, said in a statement. "For many, the experience is not a good one, and we found that it can affect the trajectories of their lives for many years to come."

Among the women Armstrong and Hamilton followed were Taylor and Emma, two students who both wanted to be dentists and had strong academic records before college. By the time the study ended, the students' paths had diverged. Emma, who was in a socially elite sorority, had a job as a dental assistant, which does require a college degree. Taylor, whose highly educated parents encouraged her to join a more studious sorority, was in dental school. The authors argue that the school didn't offer the academic and social support that could have helped Emma succeed.

"We found that most of the women reproduced their parents' status," Armstrong said. "College did not act as a pathway to upward mobility for most."

It might not be all that surprising that the college experience is not always a stepping stone for some students. A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates detailed in a 2011 book, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" (University of Chicago Press), showed that 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in critical thinking, writing and complex reasoning by the end of their sophomore year. And after four years, 36 percent of students failed to demonstrate significant academic improvement.

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