In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, ElizabethArmstrong and Laura Hamilton study a group of freshman women over the course offive-years, taking particular note of their social experience in college due totheir socioeconomic background as well as their post-graduate profession. Andwhat do they find? As a low-income student considering colleges with the hopeof a college degree providing a means of moving from working or lower-middleclasses into upper classes, a moderately selective four-year college, such asMidwestern University, the pseudonym for the university described by Armstrongand Hamilton, is not the best choice. Out-of-state or wealthier studentswho attend schools such as Midwestern University pay more than in-statestudents or students who would be on need-based financial aid, providing asignificant financial incentive to accept those students. And thus, MidwesternUniversity is built towards students on the “party pathway”, or students whohave significant family resources and connections, and would be able to usethese advantages to procure a job post-graduation, rather than for those on the”mobility pathway”, or those hoping to move to upper classes. Even the majorsoffered by the university are geared towards the students who have a path thathas been pre-determined for them and thus these types of universities prove tobe a hinderance for lower-income student in the search for an upper class orupper-middle class job post-graduation.We see the same idea of low-incomestudents failing to move up into the middle class post-graduation addressed byErik Olin Wright in Class Counts,where he discusses the difference between what he calls the capitalist classand the working class.
Wright claims that working class is at a distinctdisadvantage in terms of moving to the capitalist class due to systemicobstacles that are prevalent in the path to developing the skills necessary tofind a profession in the capitalist class. In the scenario described byArmstrong and Hamilton in their book, this is exactly what is seen between thestudents who began their college lives in that hall. Considering the studentsfrom the upper and upper-middle classes to be a part of the capitalist classand those from the middle, lower-middle and working classes to be part of theworking class, drawing these distinctions based on the professions of theirparents, we see the same outcome as what is claimed by Wright.
The idea of only certain skillsbeing useful to employers brings up Bourdieu and his idea of “cultural capital”,which claims that certain elements such as professions, skills, talents,connections and people one knows, tastes in music, clothing, etc., can bond individualstogether, and group them into certain classes. We start to see how this affectsthe in-college experience of many students. For example, in Chapter 1 of Paying for the Party, Armstrong andHamilton discuss a pair of roommates, Hannah and Alyssa. Hannah came from anaffluent family, with no financial restrictions or worries. Alyssa, on theother hand, was on financial aid and had financial concerns while in collegeand had to work for her tuition, which took copious amounts of her time,leaving her with only a little time for socialization after taking out timenecessary for studying.
Hannah, with no requirement to work for tuition, wasable to take the time out to socialize and make friends. Hannah would claimfrequently that she always invited Alyssa to go out with them shopping or toeat. However, these activities may have more stressful than enjoyable to Alyssadue to the obvious financial cost that shopping or eating out, for example,would imply. There is a powerful videoin which a line of students about to enter college are about to begin college.
These students are to race to the end of the field. But before they can,everyone with certain attributes, as specified by an outside party, can takeone step forward for each attribute. These attributes are things like parentswho were able to send them to extracurricular activities or private schools orextra tuitions. At this point, some students are nearly half-way across, whilesome are still at the start line. Now, they can race to end of the field. Whatwould the outcome be? Obviously, those with the head-start will have a higherchance of finishing first.
And that is exactly what we can see from Armstrongand Hamilton, Wright and Bourdieu. Students from lower social classes, who donot have skills or connections deemed worthy by employers, have a harder timegetting into colleges, much different social experiences in colleges and a muchmore difficult time finding jobs that students who are supported by wealthierfamilies.