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Elizabeth Armstrong is one of the authors (with Laura Hamilton) of a new book about American university education, Paying for the Party. (Scott C. Soderberg/Michigan Photography, S. Soderbe)
Elizabeth Armstrong is one of the authors (with Laura Hamilton) of a new book about American university education, Paying for the Party. (Scott C. Soderberg/Michigan Photography, S. Soderbe)

Education Memo

American universities an on-ramp to downward mobility Add to ...

The competition among American universities to draw an affluent minority of students is failing the vast majority of students for whom education is no longer an on-ramp to economic success. That’s the conclusion of Paying for the Party, a new book by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, two sociologists who spent five years studying the female residents at a Midwestern public university in the States.

While Canadian universities are not infected with the sorority and fraternity system that make socializing so central to American education, Paying for the Party is a warning about what all families and universities must do to ensure that the investment in education pays off. Without intense parental involvement, Armstrong and Hamilton argue, students are unlikely to launch successful careers of the kind they expected. Few universities have developed education and career supports that rival the best informal networks: The two sociologists describe CEO and CFO dads using their personal connections to procure high-profile internships for daughters with middling grades.

Is that a lot of pressure for parents? Yes, says Armstrong - but it’s also information. She’s now using what she learnt from the project to scout out universities with her college-age son. We talked about how to win at the university game and why many are losing.

Q: If there were three things I learnt from your book in terms of picking a university for my child when the time comes, it was that we will need to find something through our networks, pay living expenses while he does an unpaid internship and push hard to stay focused on achievement. Did I get that all right?

Armstrong: Ha, yes. It’s financial and logistical support. One of the families took their daughter to D.C. where she had a paid internship, they bought her a car, found and paid for an apartment and then said ‘Great, now you’re independent!’ Pushing hard is a complex thing though. We found the parents who were more successful were able to realistically assess the strengths and weaknesses and really see the weaknesses: “My daughter is smart enough to be a dentist, for example, but maybe she could not be an orthopedic surgeon.” ... The young women who succeeded also had very good relationships with their parents and trusted them. They said: “My mom told me this, my dad said that.” When their parents gave them advice, they followed it.

Q: There used to be a compact for the middle class. You pay for university and work hard and it leads to better jobs. But that is true only for a minority of the students you follow. Most are on a path of downward mobility after university.

What happened in the U.S. in the 1980s is that American states started a divestment in public education that has intensified over the recession. ... The university is forced into a position that is making decisions based on what is beneficial to the most affluent of their consumers. When they think about residence buildings, they don’t think about how to make them affordable, but how are we going to lure affluent families from New York: “Maybe we should make apartments and a gym downstairs.” Those are going to boost the cost over time.

The people who are likely to believe in that compact are lower middle-class, middle-class families. They are trying to get their daughters to the flagship university because they believe as long as they get through there will be something at the end. And they end up with no connections and a lot of debt.

For the socialiates, marrying rich is a goal – in a book about young women the word feminism is missing entirely. Does it matter to them at all?

Laura and I both identify as feminists and we would have been delighted to find it there, but they don’t see it as relevant. In the preliminary focus groups we did, I did deliberately seek out a group of feminists. But they were on the total margins of campus culture. They were sexually out there as well; even the form of feminism that was active on campus was a personal, sexually expressive variety.

Allanah (one of the students) and I went to The Vagina Monologues together, that’s something she wanted to do.

So what can universities do?

There were a number of affluent parents where relationships had broken down. To level the playing field [between involved and uninvolved parents] the career centre should be playing a part, really good advisers play a role. The way it works in American universities, the more elite it is, the higher the level of advisor. They have faculty engaging, instead of professional staff. ... In a school that was doing more support for the students, where residence life did a better job of integrating students, so there weren’t so many places to go astray, the involvement of the parents would not have been as necessary.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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