Although published just five years ago, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2013), already has had a major influence on how we think about higher education and its complicated relationship to social mobility and a bleaker cousin, social reproduction. Beautifully written, knitting together themes of social class, gender, sexuality, organizations, and education, the book is destined to be a classic. Indeed, it has won several awards, and its authors have cemented their status as experts on higher education.
Written by the sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, the book is an ethnographic account of the lives of first-year women college students living on a “party floor” at a selective public university they call Midwest U. Varied in their social-class backgrounds, the students have profoundly different pathways through college. Poor and working-class young women face formidable obstacles to completing their degrees, while the children of upper middle class professionals pursue meaningful majors and vocations. At the same time, the daughters of the wealthiest, socialite families join sororities, and party their way through easy majors, graduation, and, beyond that, socially connected jobs.