Mean but purposeful party girls

US researchers who spent time living alongside sorority students at a Midwestern university observed a depressingly divisive class culture where partying is a vocation, status eclipses study and success is only for the well-to-do. Matthew Reisz reports

May 9, 2013

Whitney was the dormitory “mean girl”. Exceptionally alert to social status, she proved highly skilled at using compliments to build alliances while openly cutting dead people who might reflect badly on her. Her clique, who had all come to “Midwest University” “primed to party”, made no secret of their contempt for the less socially adept women with rooms on the other side of the hall, which they cheerfully referred to as “the dark side”.

One woman found this disdain so upsetting that, years later, she set up a Facebook group specifically designed to reclaim the “dark side” title. Another wondered what it meant for the university to preach diversity when she found herself in a dorm “where everybody is exactly the same…where every other girl [has the same name], and they have the same pink stuff, and they all look the same”.

These vignettes come from a striking new book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, focusing on the social side of US university life. Although full of the comedies, rivalries and mini-dramas one might find in a high school movie or romcom, it is also a serious - and seriously depressing - study of American higher education.

The book is based on research by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton - respectively associate professor of sociology and organisational studies at the University of Michigan and assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced - who, in 2004, “settled into a room in a coeducational residence hall at a large research university in the Midwest”. The university is not named, but the authors tell us that it is a “flagship” institution, “ranked in the top 100 schools in the nation”, and part of a larger group that “bridge[s] the elite and mass sectors of higher education”.

The project developed into a five-year study, involving 48 of the 53 women who lived on a particular floor. In the initial stages, the research team, which also included four graduate students and three undergraduates, “interacted with them as they did with each other - hanging out, watching television, eating pizza, studying, and providing company as they got dressed for parties and other social events”. They went on to carry out an annual interview with each student, “following [the women’s] lives as they moved through the university and into the work force”. The research eventually generated 202 in-depth interviews as well as 2,000 pages of field notes.

“I originally wrote a grant proposal for a project called ‘The Erotic Curriculum’,” says Armstrong, “because I was interested in what people learned about sexuality while they were in college. It was the deep immersion on the floor that led to the focus on social class.”

At the heart of the analysis is the “Greek system” of sororities and fraternities, crucial to the social scene at a university widely known as a “party college”. These are powerful semi-independent institutions, which own property on campus and offer opportunities for underage drinking unavailable elsewhere. Their autonomy is also reflected in their admissions procedures.

“For employment purposes and admission to college,” explains Armstrong, “social factors may play a role, but so do others as well. For sororities, it’s purely social - the members get to select the next set of members and don’t have to justify their decisions to anybody.”

The way this works is through a series of interviews or auditions known as “rush”, where decisions depend on what Paying for the Party describes as “peer-driven screening and ranking mechanisms - centred on social ties, personality, sexual reputation, and cuteness”. The authors found that this proves highly self-perpetuating, with the sororities at the top of the hierarchy filled with women who are “bubbly”, white, heterosexual, more or less naturally blonde, au fait with the right (expensive) shoes and handbags, and able to negotiate the fine line between “sexy” and “slutty”.

Those selected can then join a hectic and very exclusive social circle, excellent for networking and displaying “erotic capital”, while minimising all contact with the “wrong sort” of people. Although “the most socially ambitious women thought of boyfriends as social liabilities who pulled them out of the party scene”, they got to hang out with high-status fraternity men who might later become partners.

“Whether, when, and who people marry,” as the book reminds us, “is a key determinant of adult life circumstances.” One of its more or less explicit messages is that small-town girls would be well advised to dump their unambitious, “hick” or “loser” boyfriends from back home as soon as they get to college - this can make a significant difference to their prospects for the rest of their lives.

In a milieu where expressions of femininity are rigidly policed, it is hardly surprising that the researchers found themselves affected.

“The hair was a problem,” recalls Hamilton, the younger of the two. “I had and have very short hair. I ended up growing it out over the course of the study. Short hair was often read as a signal of sexuality, so some of the women were initially put off and concerned that I was a lesbian. That would have made it really hard for many of them to connect with me because it was not really an acceptable trait within their world.”

“I was much older,” adds Armstrong, “so the women’s reaction to me was often ‘Help! An adult!’ I connected with the girls who were nerdier, more intellectual, more marginal on the floor and did some interviews with them, but the women who were very interested in sororities and being popular didn’t really want to have anything to do with me. They pretty much ignored me…It definitely threw me back to my own middle school and high school experiences and raised stuff for me that I hadn’t expected.”

For the students whom Paying for the Party describes as “socialites” and “wannabes”, “partying was nothing short of a vocation”. And, far from just being about “having fun”, their behaviour was based on “the assumption that being really good at being a ‘girl’ has social value and can be exchanged for certain types of career success and - most important - a well-heeled male breadwinner”.

Many such women, in Armstrong’s view, were continuing on a track they had embarked on much earlier: “Some were already homecoming queens, cheerleaders and very popular in high school, so they came into college good at all that stuff and took it for granted they would continue to pursue those kinds of things.

“But they thought they had got better by the time they graduated - their fashion sense had improved, they had become socially more skilled, more at ease navigating a certain kind of classed femininity, though they wouldn’t have put it like that.”

A year out of college, Hamilton reports that some were already established in big cities, “rubbing elbows with investment bankers”.

Many people - particularly academics - would argue that universities have far more interesting and important purposes than giving former cheerleaders the poise and fashion sense to acquire rich husbands. Yet Paying for the Party is also saying something more disquieting than that. Not only does “Midwest University” offer a “party pathway” best suited to the children of the upper-middle class but this tends to crowd out many of the other things one would expect it to be doing in terms of professional training and promoting social mobility.

The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom. Sheer financial pressures on universities make “extremely affluent students with middling academic credentials” very attractive. So institutions lay on a range of “pink-collar” “easy majors”, with no Friday classes to interfere with partying, which lead to careers in media, sport or fashion where “appearance, personality, and social ties matter at least as much as [academic success]”. “Business-lite” subjects such as recreation sport management and tourism management are “almost exclusively filled by women”, and “appeal to the particular kind of upper-middle-class femininity that they were simultaneously working to perfect in the party scene”.

Attending university with “the intent to play hard and work only as hard as necessary” works out well for the most affluent young women, since many of their parents can secure internships or jobs for them through their professional networks or underwrite a move to a metropolis after graduation. For those aspiring to the same lifestyle without the same support, the “party pathway” can be a trap. One working-class woman with plans to be a teacher abandoned them when she discovered more privileged peers studying tourism with a view to becoming wedding planners, little realising that this profession depends largely on contacts and social capital she would never have.

Armstrong also cites the case of a woman who “both wanted to be a nurse and to get into a top sorority. Her social ambitions led her to flunk anatomy and eventually give up her career path. We saw how that panned out over the next four years, and how she struggled to recover from that.

“One of the consequences of the invisibility of social class in the US is that women in the wannabe category didn’t understand how much more in the way of resources some of the other young women they were trying to keep up with had,” Armstrong continues. “It took us the whole of the study to realise that the consequences of partying very hard would vary so dramatically.” Seemingly small differences in social background were often greatly magnified through this process.

And what about the students from far less privileged backgrounds? “Public universities were founded to provide mobility for students who were in- state and didn’t have a lot of funds,” says Hamilton. Yet none of the working-class women on the floor of that hall of residence (admittedly a small sample) managed to graduate over the period covered by the study. Instead, “they started to get depressed and withdraw and, put off by the social scene at least as much as the academic demands, left mainly for less prestigious institutions, where the researchers assumed they would do worse”.

In reality, this proved to be a sensible decision, since they were moving to places where “there wasn’t a Greek system, other students were like them - working, not partying - and there were not a lot of easy majors such as fashion, merchandising or sports broadcasting”.

Armstrong very much concurs with this: “There’s still a sense of optimism among educators about what higher education in particular can do, so we didn’t expect the situation to be quite as depressing as we found it.

“The women from working-class backgrounds were smart, entrepreneurial, resilient in overcoming obstacles, courageous. They believed what they had been told, that going to a flagship university and being ambitious and investing all these resources was going to pay off. And then they arrived at a place where they were shut down on every dimension. They didn’t get good classes, they didn’t get good advisers, the other students weren’t nice to them, and they had to work a lot of hours just to make ends meet. One young woman ended up not having enough food to eat.”

Although Paying for the Party undeniably takes an oblique approach to diagnosing what is wrong with American higher education, Armstrong argues that it is also an illuminating one: “Most of the other books on the social side of college don’t connect it to the academic core and the stratification process and the status-competitive aspects of it, so they miss the real work that this stuff is doing.”

What emerges is a trend towards what has been called the “country- clubization” of US universities, where increased spending on student services such as recreation and athletics has greatly outstripped that on academic instruction and financial help for the disadvantaged. For many at “Midwest University”, the “college experience” is a bit like a luxury cruise, ideally suited to the privileged and “not quite adult”.

“From a purely utilitarian perspective,” the book concludes soberly, citing the case of one young woman, “it is hard to justify a four-year college experience that appears to have generated limited intellectual engagement, no pathway toward a professional career, and little hope of gaining a middle-class salary…Unless priorities shift, four-year public universities remain vulnerable. The fortunes of the women we studied suggest that these organizations may not be delivering on their promise.”

More helping, less hazing: Greeks rediscover their moral compass

Crackdowns from within and without appear to be gradually curbing incidents of alcohol abuse, sex scandals, violence, and other misdeeds by fraternities and sororities on American university campuses.

Concerned about bad publicity and lawsuits, the national headquarters of several fraternities and sororities have pressed their member chapters to clean up their acts. And universities themselves, which once often looked the other way, are coming down harder on offences.

“We’re a lot less forgiving,” says Jeremiah Shinn, director of the Student Involvement and Leadership Center at Boise State University and president of the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors. “There’s a growing awareness that the previous culture of fraternities and sororities was inconsistent with the social and educational mission of higher education.”

The result is that, although some problems continue, fraternities and sororities are no longer omnipresent in the news for the wrong reasons.

“There have always been some high-profile cases, but they’ve diminished,” says Stevan Veldkamp, executive director of the Center for the Study of the College Fraternity at Indiana University Bloomington.

Even the language has shifted. Instead of toga parties and pledge weeks, people involved in running and overseeing university fraternities and sororities now talk of “organisational purpose” and being “values- congruent”.

About 5 per cent of US university students join fraternities and sororities, but the proportion is significantly higher on some campuses, including those of large public institutions. In all, there are 12,000 fraternity chapters at about 800 universities in the US, with 750,000 members.

Begun as student literary and debating societies before evolving into men’s clubs, most fraternities - and the later women’s version, sororities - have lofty mission statements about such things as ethics, brotherhood (and sisterhood), scholarship and charity. But many eventually came to focus more on social activities than on personal enrichment.

“All the organisations, if they did what their rhetoric said they were going to do, would be the most noble of our student populations,” Veldkamp says. “And I think some of them are trying in earnest to regain that standing.”

There are still problems. For example, 22 members of a fraternity at Northern Illinois University were charged in December with violating laws against “hazing”, or dangerous initiation ceremonies, in the alcohol- poisoning death of a student who wanted to join. And the University of Central Florida suspended most fraternity and sorority activities in February to investigate alleged hazing and alcohol abuse.

But a generation of students who have been immersed in the idea of public service since primary school have begun to look to fraternities as vehicles for that purpose.

“There’s a heightened sense of community and engaging in service and philanthropy,” Veldkamp says.

Some national fraternities and sororities are assessing their student members for the first time on whether they are living up to their stated missions in areas such as civic engagement, problem-solving and teamwork, Veldkamp says.

There’s still a way to go, Shinn acknowledges. But the question now, he says, is: “How do we use the experience of being part of a fraternity or sorority to help people be better, more aware, more confident and more aligned with the educational mission than they would have been without it?”

Jon Marcus

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