A new book reveals information about our students and the way our institutions treat them. It’s sure to draw a “this just can’t be” reaction from those involved in the higher education enterprise—and some are questioning the research—but if it’s true, academic librarians may want to be thinking more about the socioeconomic status of the students.
Call it a “Bruce Springsteen” moment for higher education. A new book by two faculty members gets big attention on the same day in both the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. When Bruce Springsteen first broke big with his Born to Run album, he was featured on the cover of Time and Newsweek that same week—a feat rarely accomplished. So when a book gets the Bruce Springsteen treatment, it probably deserves our attention. What made it so special? Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality is a new book by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. The authors spent five years studying female students at a public flagship university. The gist of their research is that socio-economic status plays a significant role in both college and post-college success. That hardly sounds like a surprising research finding. Money and class status are always connected to success in America. The more attention catching conclusion is that higher education may be the great un-equalizer, serving to maintain the status quo, rather than giving students the education and experience needed to move up the status ladder.
From Different Worlds
While the book is subject to some criticism for examining a relatively small group of female students at a single institution, it does serve to provide an in-depth look at students from different backgrounds and how that impacts their college experience. What they found is that the women from affluent backgrounds tended to graduate on time and found good careers or entered professional graduate schools. Of the working class women studied, with just one exception, none graduated from this institution. They either transferred out or left higher education. Again, given the resources of affluent students, these results might be anticipated. Affluent students have two significant advantages. First, they are less worried about racking up huge debt owing to financial support received from their parents. That makes for a far less stressful experience. Second, their parents provide emotional support, push their children harder to succeed, and are apt to directly involve themselves when they perceive it necessary. The working class students are piling up loans, and when things go awry their support system, if any, is far weaker. Knowing this, we would expect our colleges and universities to establish programs to provide greater assistance to its most at risk students. According to Armstrong and Hamilton, what’s really happening at some types of institutions is just the opposite.
Instead of concentrating resources to help students in need, the public, moderately selective universities, those most impacted by years of budget cutting, are turning their attention to upper-class students who are full payers. To enroll and keep them, the authors identify a form of educational attainment they refer to as the “Party Pathway.” It consists of majors geared to students with high social tendencies who will likely join fraternities or sororities. This allows the students to ease through their college years with minimal intellectual challenge in courses where high grades are common. The pathway provides plenty of time for socializing, partying and all the drinking and sexual escapades that go along with the party scene. As the authors say, these universities need to pay more attention to the needs of their affluent students in order to keep them and their parents happy. That’s where the “Is this for real?” moment occurs. Is there, as the authors contend, an intentional campaign to target prospective students who fit the party pathway profile, and to then maintain a system that keeps them and their overly protective parents content? Given the student outcomes, the authors make a good case that such a system exists. If so, what are we supposed to make of it, and what can higher education learn to put it back on track to provide those from less affluent backgrounds with equal opportunities for academic and career success?
Not Their Fault
Keep in mind that the authors’ intent is more than a 60 Minutes-type expose of a faulty practice in higher education. For one thing, they’re not blaming the institutions that offer the party path. If their funding streams are cut year after year, focusing on full payers comes across as a reasonably smart survival strategy. Blame, if any, should go to the state governments and general funding assault on public higher education. Armstrong and Hamilton offer strategies that several different institutional players could adopt to adapt to this new environment, and perhaps bring some improvements. Working class students should consider options other than the moderately selective public institutions that would be a better fit for their needs and the support they might require. This will only happen if prospective students and their parents become wiser consumers of higher education. If they want to achieve diversity, these institutions need to get serious about improving the support systems for working class and other at-risk students. Analytics technology offers the capacity for early detection of troubled students; we need to put it to use to create change.
Teaching the Partiers and the Strugglers
Having just experienced ACRL 2013, I have social justice on my mind. All three of the keynote speakers, Geoffrey Canada, Henry Rollins, and Maria Hinojosa, despite giving radically different talks (I now know it is not humanly possible for anyone to deliver anything even remotely similar to a Henry Rollins speech), touched on a common theme—social injustice in America. All referenced legacy systems that perpetuate class difference and allow some to advance while others are held back. It’s hard to accept that higher education might be one of those systems. Higher education should be about creating equal opportunities for all of our students to succeed and achieve their dreams. To whatever degree Paying for the Party speaks the truth about inequality in higher education, academic librarians, through their work, can do their best to level the playing field for students when it comes to learning about research, having access to resources, and obtaining support when and where it’s needed. From our vantage point the partiers and the strugglers are one and the same: students. We’re here to help them all succeed. Knowing that class distinctions may exist at our institutions—and may be a determinant of our students’ academic fate—should encourage us to think more deeply about serving our at-risk students. In this small way, we might be able to have a hand in delivering social justice at our institution. We say we want to demonstrate our value by connecting the work of academic librarians to student retention. Here’s a great opportunity for us. Let’s do something about it.