Is college for everyone?

College can even make income inequality worse, despite its being touted as the great equalizer. In a multiyear study of female college students, Paying For The Party, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton found that students who looked similar in terms of “predictors” — grades and test scores — came out of college on very different trajectories. The biggest danger was when smart women from less-well-off backgrounds got onto what Armstrong and Hamilton call the “party pathway.”

The richer girls who did this usually emerged OK, with family connections and parental subsidies allowing them to snag good jobs and internships in spite of any partying-related stumbles. The poorer girls with similar credentials (“strivers”) who got on the party track tended to emerge with low GPAs, unimpressive post-college jobs (frequently jobs that they could have gotten without a college degree) and burdened with debt. They actually often wound up with downward mobility, rather than the upward mobility that colleges sell. (Interestingly, the “strivers” who did best were the ones who transferred to less-prestigious regional state universities, which were also often cheaper. These schools — the Northern Kentucky Universities of the world — focus more on teaching, and are often more oriented toward student success, frequently in a less party-oriented atmosphere).

The big schools, for the “strivers,” were often an expensive detour. One student’s father described the pro-college pitch as like an infomercial, where the product turned out to be not nearly as good as promised.