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Features — 22 September 2014

By Jennifer McDonell

As first-years became accustomed to their new lives in Wesley Hall and upperclassmen fled to their familiar frat haunts, I found myself reading a book on the first Saturday of the semester. This book was not a young adult  novel checked out from the library, nor was it for a class that hadn’t even started yet (because I’m such an overachiever). It was a book that had grasped my attention since I first saw it mentioned in the New York Times.

“Paying for the Party” is not your typical non-fiction look into the secret life of the American teenager. It is a book riddled with stark truths that our generation recognizes, somewhat subconsciously, as coming from forces outside of our control.

Two sociology professors, one from the University of Michigan and the other from University of California, Berkeley, stayed in a party dorm for 5 years at an unnamed Midwestern research university, referred to as MU (Midwestern University). They specifically got to know one hall of freshmen girls and followed them throughout and beyond their college years. We see girls of all class statuses in “Paying for the Party,” some from very wealthy parents, others from rural towns that did not understand the social constructs of the college experience.

The authors ultimately found that colleges tend to mold a “social” track for wealthy, outgoing, adept students that had the family resources and guidance to provide them with a solid launching point. The women who were already on this set out path followed suit and joined sororities, made a solid social circle, and ended up being successful in their studies and aims to go to graduate school. Others, who were not ready or able to join the pathway were left to the wayside, losing sight of their academic goals and desire to try.

The book is largely focused on accurately capturing the experiences of the girls involved, rather than including a large number of subjects. The depth and intricacy of the subject’s reactions to the college atmosphere were interesting and thoroughly engaging. As the authors begin to stop combining the girls by demographics and started getting to know them as complex individuals, the reader begins to see the girls as humans, and not as case studies.

As we read, we learn that many girls in the dorm faced challenges far outside the academic sphere that negatively affected their academic performance.  As one student from the study, Alana, remarks:

“It was very lonely and hard. Really hard. I didn’t do so well academically. You’d think if I was a social recluse, that I’d be really good at academics, but I think I got some C’s that semester…I wish more than anything in the world that I would have made more friends that year.”

The harrowing aspect of this book is what lies in that quote. Those same themes—loneliness, poor academic performance and an underwhelming motivation to try—appear time after time in quotes from many girls who found their college experience unsatisfactory.

The authors separate the girls into three pathways: the socialites, the wannabes, and the strivers. The qualifications for each are based on family income level, social ties, and their ability to have fun in school versus working hard. The pathways became apparent even on the first day, as the wealthier girls found each other immediately and became friends, got ready together and eventually went to parties. The wannabes had to work hard to get into the inner-circle of the upper echelon at MU. They had to be cunning and nitpicky about their appearances and every action to slip through the cracks. Whereas the strivers, the lower class students that could hardly even afford to go to school, had to work jobs outside of the classroom while struggling in their mostly remedial classes. When it came time for internships, many of the socialites found them through their parents’ friends in big cities and lived there during the summer.

“…It was apparent [Naomi] had gotten the internship not on the strength of her resume, but the strength of her ties. In fact, internships in her desired industry seemingly dropped in her lap as a result of her social location. The summer after her junior year, Naomi got another amazing opportunity that she turned down, preferring to spend the summer relaxing, traveling, and shopping with her mom.”

In comparison, wannabes that were also majoring in communications couldn’t even get internships for small sports teams near their hometowns. This caused them to have to change majors halfway through college, realizing that these goals were not tangible due to a lack  of family ties and poor location.

It is surprising, but these pathways became even more pronounced after graduation, when some girls with parental connections immediately moved to big cities with financial support, and found jobs at top media firms and in public relations. Some of the girls found themselves tapping into trust funds, while others got monthly stipends from their parents. The wannabes found themselves back at home, wondering how they got there and slapping themselves for not realizing sooner that college is only temporary–and that real life is quite bitter in comparison.

What a way to start the school year. Junior year, some say, is the apex of your college career. Your work in clubs starts paying off in way of high ranking positions, your classes reach a culmination, and important internships are right around the corner. This book infuriated and enlightened me; I saw in the girls many people I have known. I saw girls that graduated from our own beloved University of Michigan that moved to NYC to work low paying jobs just to be there. While others, lost in a sea of thousands, ended up living at home with no job to be found once the party was over. My hope is that Albion, with a friendly Greek and non-Greek student body that often coincides with one another in our many collaborative groups and classes, can be an exception to this terrifying rule. Can we be better than these ruthless big schools that throw poor students into the gutter because they aren’t attractive and don’t get student constructed social rules? Can we work together to bolster one another instead of tearing each other down–or worse, simply forgetting that these disadvantaged students exist altogether?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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About Author

Jennifer McDonell is a senior from Milford, Michigan. She enjoys film, photography, and literature. She recently interned at Troy-based DBusiness Magazine. Jennifer's journalism focuses on tech-start ups, restaurant openings, and cultural events.

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