Review: Paying for the Party – How College Maintains Inequality by Armstrong and Hamilton

A few weeks ago I watched the documentary “The Ivory Tower”, which paints a rather bleak picture of US higher education. It also offers some excellent unintentional humor, for instance, when the president of Arizona State University, one of the premier party schools in the world, claims that they laugh about their image. Instead, he says, their model is the Oxford or Harvard-type scholar — only for the next cut to highlight the party atmosphere. In this context, the book “Paying for the Party” was mentioned. It’s two seemingly lesbian authors also got a bit of screen time in the documentary.

The thesis of “Paying for the Party” sounded interesting, but certainly far-fetched. The authors claim that there are various “pathways” through university, with the “party pathway” being the most prominent one. They also claim that university is no longer a means for advancing in life. Instead, universities make sure you won’t reach a higher socio-economic status. It’s a quite daring hypothesis indeed. Opening the book, you quickly realize that it’s utter bullshit: They interviewed a bunch of women at a typical party school, which was quickly identified as the University of Indiana at Bloomington, and carefully select their answers to fit the categories the authors designed in advance. Those women are accompanied over five years, from freshman year to year one after college.

To give you an idea of how incredibly bad their work is, look at this statement from the opening chapter:

Emma had earned “straight A’s and was in all of the advanced placement classes”. Taylor reported a 3.78 high school grade point average (GPA). Although Taylor’s family was more affluent than Emma’s, both were from middle- or upper-middle-class families. The two women majored in biology and took advantage of opportunities to further their career goals. Their circumstances one year after graduation differed dramatically. Taylor left with a 3.6GPA and was enrolled in dental school. (…) Emma graduated with a 3.0GPA and was working as a dental assistant— making $11 an hour in a job that did not require a bachelor’s degree.

Shocking, right?

Well, as you read on, it emerges that those two students are anything but similar. “Taylor” is from a well-off family and went to a good high school. On the other hand, for “Emma” the opposite is true. In fact, she had to do remedial classes. Thus, those two women started out on completely unequal footing. It’s not the case that those two women were equals on paper, yet one somehow turns into a dentist and the other into a dental assistant, due to some evil machinations on behalf of the university. Instead, the weaker one has been actively misled by the high school system, believing that she is a lot more capable than she really is. That the authors gloss over this when setting the scene left a really bad taste in my mouth.

In more detail, the thesis of the authors is that there are three pathways at university: “Party”, “Mobility” and “Professional”. The women they interview are further subdivided into winners and losers (my terminology). Women in the party pathway study towards a bullshit degree because they are not smart enough for anything else. If they come from a rich family with good connections, they end up kind of okay. Those women who don’t, fail outright. The mobility pathway is supposed to take you one rung higher on the social ladder. The authors write that it partly overlaps with the professional pathway. This should have given them some pause, realizing that their categorization doesn’t make sense. In fact, in that category they have one “winner”, but it’s a woman of somewhat mediocre ability who is misled by her professors who tell her that she can get into an elite graduate PhD program. Yet, once this doesn’t work out, they all act surprised. The other women in that group basically all don’t get anywhere. Lastly, the professional pathway turns you into a doctor, lawyer, accountant etc.

The entire classification could have been made much clearer: “Bullshit degrees” and “Non-Bullshit degrees”. This takes care of their “mobility” pathway, which overlaps, as they admit themselves, with the professional pathway anyway. Of course, such straightforwardness would have made for a much thinner book. In short, women in bullshit degrees with poor parents are genuinely fucked, while those women with bullshit degrees with rich parents can at least pretend to work, biding their time until they find a husband. The women interviewed are not very realistic, though, as they think they can just party until their 30s until their buff billionaire will show up. That doesn’t work so well in reality. For the non-bullshit degrees, class background does not matter so much. In the book, this isn’t clear, because the authors put degrees in “social work” also into the professional pathway, which is of course complete nonsense.

Overall, the book is badly written and an embarrassment for any academic. For instance, the authors apparently spent way too much time with the women they interviewed. Otherwise, I couldn’t explain why they only, and repeatedly, speak of “good-paying jobs” (it’s “well-paying”). Also, I chuckled when they explained the idiom “cream of the crop” in the book, as if it’s not widely known. They use this as the basis for their creation of the term “creaming”, which is supposed to mean that universities take the “cream of the crop” of students. Presumably, had the authors enjoyed a better education themselves, they would know the expression “to cream off”, which means precisely that. Of course, “to cream” has a few quite peculiar meanings, such as “arousing a woman to the point that she’s getting wet”. The authors should know about this. They waste many pages on their made-up use of “creaming”, even though there is only one student who was “creamed”, the one who wanted to do a PhD in the humanities. Well, she got creamed in a different way, that is also used colloquially.

What I particularly disliked about the book are its Marxists undertones. The authors seem quite upset that there are good and bad students, and that universities sometimes also help the former. A case in point is the anger of the authors, which was directed at the business school, which offers some of the more selective undergraduate majors. To the great dismay of the authors, the business school invites companies on campus to interview their students. The authors think that those students don’t need this help, to begin with, and think that students in less selective programs should also be interviewed. Of course, this completely ignores the fact that corporations are not just there to further an SJW agenda. They also need people to do the work. If you’re done hiring for diversity roles, you also need to hire people who make you money. As we generally believe that the best indicator of future performance is past performance, we therefore tend to think that ceteris paribus students in more selective programs are better suited. While it is of course possible that there are smart students who are not in such a program, it is also the case that it can reasonably be assumed that there will be fewer non-smart students in those programs. Thus, it makes sense for companies to seek out this crowd. I would also bet that companies don’t interview students for fun. Should a Marxist university administrator force companies to interview students with poor academic records, those companies would simply stop interviewing.

“Paying for the Party” is a relatively quick read, despite the awkward language. The analysis presented by the authors is sophomoric (sophomoronic?), but the many quotes by their female subjects are quite entertaining, if sometimes for the wrong reasons as the book also serves as an involuntary study on large-scale delusions of college-bound women who are living high on their parents’ dime. I’d very much like to see a follow-up work in a few years’ time, when the many trainwrecks described in “Paying for the Party” will be in their mid-30s.

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