A Revealing Look at a State Flagship

State flagship universities have an image problem. They want people to think of them as places where students are dedicated to their studies, but can also have some fun. Watch the glowing ads such schools run at halftime in televised football and basketball games.

The problem is that information keeps getting out, showing that for many students, the fun overwhelms the studying. When parents and taxpayers hear that, they are apt to conclude that their kids shouldn’t go there and their tax money is being squandered. Just a little bit of truth can wipe out millions of dollars worth of PR work.

A new book published by Harvard, Paying for the Party by sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, contains much more than a bit of embarrassing information about a state flagship. It’s like a garbage scow, heaped to the maximum. The authors interviewed the women who lived on one floor of a dorm at the school when they were freshmen, and kept up with them for five years. Much of what we learn from their experience will prove terribly damaging to the university’s image.

So, which school is it? Just as the authors did in Becoming Right (a pointless book on college conservatives), the authors of Paying for the Party don’t name the university they put under the microscope. They call it “MU” and say that it’s the flagship in a Midwestern state. A number of clues are scattered throughout, but one of them gives it away. When they mention that the university has a Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design, the guessing game is over—the school is Indiana University. No other flagship in the Midwest has one.

From their interviews with the fifty young women, the authors paint a warts-and-all portrait of life at Indiana and it’s quite ugly.

Armstrong and Hamilton begin by observing that there are three “pathways” for students at the university: the Mobility Pathway, the Professional Pathway, and the Party Pathway. Those labels oversimplify matters, but they help to explain a lot about student goals and expectations.

Mobility students are mostly from relatively lower-income families and they hope to use college as a springboard to rise in socio-economic class. (I think it’s misleading to talk about “class” in the United States but I won’t go off on that tangent.) Most of them are looking for some kind of useful business credential.

Professional students might come from any background and they want to use their undergraduate years as a means of getting into a career like law or medicine.

The Party students are in college to have fun and they believe that taking one of the “easy majors” (the authors’ term and I’m glad they are so forthright) will give them the contacts and the credentials they need for future success.

The ever-present party culture on and around the campus is like a giant star whose gravity affects everything else—for the worse. Sororities and fraternities have an enormous influence on life, even though fewer than a quarter of the students belong. Partying consumes a lot of time and money, with terrible results for those who aren’t very good students  (and it’s shocking how weak some of the students Indiana admits are) and don’t have the high family resources (money) it takes to look “cool.”

Some of the students who initially try to focus on academic work are unable to resist the allure of the party scene. That is a serious pitfall for many of the “strivers” on the Mobility Pathway. While a few of them had the strength of will to focus on their academic work, which meant putting up with snide remarks and ostracism from the fun crowd, many did not. They did poorly, even though their courses were not at all difficult.

Low GPAs are a severe problem for students, especially those who want to get into solid academic programs, and Indiana’s party-dominated environment ensures that many will earn them. (At least we know that it is still possible to get a bad grade; evidently some faculty members there are resisting the surge of grade inflation.)

Another problem for many students is the lack of good advice. Nobody at IU has much incentive to help them made good decisions and avoid bad ones. One story is particularly memorable. A student who was having trouble in her initial choice of education (hardly known for its academic rigor!) heard that IU had a course in what seemed like a fun career—wedding planning. Do you need a college degree to plan weddings? Not really, but IU offers such a class, included in its Bachelor of Science program in Recreation, Tourism, Hospitality, and Event Management.

The hapless young woman got infatuated with the idea of that career and no one at IU told her that she should reconsider it.

She switched her major and took a lot of the department’s courses. Alas, later on she found out that what you really need to break into the field of wedding planning isn’t so much a degree as the right kind of social background and connections, which she didn’t have. What had seemed like a lovely idea was merely an expensive detour for this student.

Why don’t school officials crack down on the excessive partying, get rid of the easy majors, and run IU in a way that isn’t harmful to the interests of many of the students? Armstrong and Hamilton contend that university officials like the school the way it is because it suits their interests. The dominance of partying and sports coupled with a host of easy majors enables IU to recruit many students, including many out-of-staters paying high tuition. 

The authors don’t quite put it as clearly as Vance Fried does when he writes about “profitable non-profits” but they understand that public officials can and do put their own interests ahead of the public good.

How did the women that Armstrong and Hamilton studied do?  A few did well. Some of the partiers landed good jobs, although their IU education rarely had much to do with it. (Good parental connections meant much more.) Most of the professional pathway women were able to earn the degrees they wanted—although not always the employment they had envisioned. And a small number of the “mobility” students completed their studies at IU and found fairly good jobs.

But many of the students were, as the authors put it, “at risk of downward mobility.” That is to say, IU hadn’t helped them, but had only left them in debt for years of wasted time. Quite a few were employed in jobs that don’t require college education, such as the student with a tourism degree who was working as a $13 per hour event planner for a “gated community.” Evidence like that that supports my argument that we have oversold higher education.

Enlightening as the book is, I have a serious disagreement with the conclusion the authors draw from their research. They say that “college maintains inequality,” taking a line sure to appeal to liberal egalitarians. They’re fixated on “processes of social stratification” and strive to depict higher education as helping to keep the “upper class” where it is while hindering others from a chance at rising.

From the evidence they’ve presented, however, it doesn’t follow that “college” helps perpetuate the socio-economic status quo. It doesn’t even follow that Indiana University does so with respect to the women they focused on.  What does follow is that IU was a bad “investment” for many students, no matter what their socio-economic background.

The book shows that students from wealthy families blew through some of that wealth, often in exchange for no gain in human capital that would help them to do well on their own in the future. (When one was asked what she had learned, she replied that college helped her become “a more sophisticated dresser.”) IU did little to protect their status.

And while many of the “mobility” students floundered, some of them did manage, despite all of the obstacles on that “pathway,” to gain knowledge and skills that may help them become more prosperous than their parents.  The success stories weren’t many, but they run contrary to the notion that college maintains inequality.

Crucially, among the women who fit into the success category, many left IU for “lesser” schools in the state, where they did not need to spend so much (tuition and living costs are substantially less at the regional schools) and weren’t so distracted by the party atmosphere.

Thus, what the book really proves is another aspect of the mismatch argument. Just as “affirmative action” mismatches preferentially admitted students to schools where the academic standards are too demanding for them, so does the allure of big-name flagship universities mismatch students who ought to enroll elsewhere, both to economize and to avoid the distracting campus environment.

Many Americans still believe that going to college, especially at a famous flagship like Indiana, is a good “investment.” Paying for the Party should help to dispel that notion.