Higher Education and Social Inequality

In the fall of 2004 my then student and now co-author Laura Hamilton, a group of graduate and undergraduate research assistants, and I occupied a dormitory room on a women’s floor in a co-educational residence hall at a research university in the Midwest. We sought to involve ourselves in the lives of the 53 mostly first-year women living on the hall—two-thirds of whom were upper-middle or upper class, the others from less affluent backgrounds. We observed life on the floor over the course of the academic year and conducted in-depth interviews with the women over the course of the next five years, producing a total of 202 interviews. Forty-eight of the 53 women were interviewed at least once; thirty-three women participated in interviews all 5 years. We returned to the women late in 2015 and early 2016, right as most were turning 30, for a 6th wave of interviews. This data has generated two related sets of papers—one that focuses on the role of the university in the reproduction of social class, the other on gender inequality in sexuality.

In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press 2013), Laura Hamilton and I observed that these young women, similar to each other in all ways except class background, exited college with vastly different life prospects. Time spent at the university did little to diminish pre-existing differences in circumstances. Few women from less privileged backgrounds realized their dreams of mobility. Most women from privileged backgrounds were poised to reproduce their parents’ circumstances—although we also found disturbing numbers of women from affluent families at risk of downward mobility.

In the book we argued that women’s outcomes were in part a result of the structure of academic and social life at the university, which best accommodated the interests of affluent, socially oriented, and out-of-state students. We identified three pathways through the university—each associated with the agendas of a different group of students. With the Greek system at its center, and supported by the residence hall system and the provision of easy majors, the party pathway was the most accessible, visible, and well-resourced route through Midwest University. The party pathway structures the academic and social experiences of all students, putting the majority at a disadvantage. The mobility pathway, in contrast, was in such disrepair at Midwest U that less privileged women who transferred to regional campuses ended up with better short and long-term labor market prospects than similar women who remained at the university. The university also supported a professional pathway that enabled academically-oriented students from affluent backgrounds to achieve academically and socially, positioning them to move into professional jobs or strong graduate programs. Success on this pathway required the active intervention of involved, highly educated parents, thus putting it out of reach of less affluent women.

Our findings suggest the need to revisit claims that the effects of class background are erased with the receipt of a college degree. Our study suggests that organizational arrangements may shape whether schools exacerbate or ameliorate inequality. Moderately selective public universities may not equalize as well as more or less selective institutions. More selective institutions may offer programming designed to pull less affluent students toward the center of campus life, while less selective institutions may better meet the specific educational needs of less affluent students. In more recent years the equalizing effects of college may be diminishing due to the massification and diversification of the sector. These hypotheses lend themselves to investigation with representative data.

Hamilton further explored the gendered nature of the pathways through college provided by Midwest University in “The Revised MRS: Gender Complementarity at College” (Gender & Society 2014).

Laura Hamilton extended the data set with interviews with the parents of the women. These parents, interviewed right as (most of) the women were graduating from college, reflected on their parenting strategies. In her 2016 book, Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success  (University of Chicago Press), Hamilton teases out the differences between professional helicopters, who help their daughters develop the credentials necessary for professional success, and pink helicopters, who emphasize appearance, charm, and social ties in the hopes that women will secure a wealthy mate. Other parents either would not or could not engage in the intensive support characteristics of helicopter parents. Hamilton joined forces with Josipa Roksa and Kelly Neilsen to document the consequences of parental involvement in college (“Providing a ‘Leg Up’” Sociology of Education 2018).

Currently we are working on analysis of interviews with the women conducted in 2015-16 as they were turning 30. We are exploring the intersection of class background, college pathway, labor market experiences, continued parental investments, and marriage on their class location. Stay tuned for the results of this new analysis!

We see ourselves as participating in a larger collaborative project of directing attention to the organizational arrangements that shape student post-secondary experiences. In service of this goal, Mitchell Stevens, Richard Arum and I produced an article published in the Annual Review of Sociology (2008) outlining various sociological approaches to the study of higher education. And, in a review essay with Johanna Masse I point to some exciting new work in this area.

Mitchell Stevens, Laura Hamilton and I have been working now for several years on a paper making the case for a political sociology of educational provision. This paper, which has been rewritten from the ground up multiple times, will hopefully motivate more political, historical, and organizational scholarship on the post-secondary sector.

Although I do not anticipate collaborating with new graduate students in this stream of research, I am open in supervising students who plan to take historical, political, or organizational approaches to the role that the American postsecondary sector plays in the U.S. stratification order.