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The Great Inequality Debate
How the Collegiate Party Culture Increases Inequality

Here’s one contributor to income inequality you’ve probably never thought of: the party scene at universities. On the Crooked Timber site, Harry Brighouse reviews Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (h/t Tyler Cowen). The basic thesis of the book is that kids who come into colleges already well-off are pretty successful in navigating the campus party scene. Because they have wealth they can afford to fund their membership in frats or sororities. They can choose easy majors, confident that the connections they came in with and the connections they gain through their Greek houses will land them a good job. They drink away their four years and leave college in pretty good shape.

Not all are so lucky. Many students come in without the connections the affluent do. They can’t in reality afford bad GPAs or easy majors, because they need to preform well to get a good job. They also don’t have enough money to “keep up with the party scene” on its own, but they get sucked into it by the prestige it carries:

The authors tell stories of students seeking upward social mobility switching their majors from sensible professional majors to easy majors that lead to jobs available only through family contacts, not through credentials. Nobody is alerting these students to the risks they are taking. So the class inequalities at entry are exacerbated by the process.

We’ve talked before about how cultural, social, and relational inequalities can help deepen income inequality. People who lack access to institutions, communities, or strong support networks suffer a different kind of poverty than mere material deprivation (though the two are often linked). What this piece points out is that elites maintain their power as much by skillfully maintaing connections as by spending or saving raw cash. Even more tragically, they (unintentionally) support and give elite status to a culture that itself increases their relative power over poorer students. Students who try to keep up with the party culture, according to this book, leave it in a more unequal position than they entered.

There are lots of financial and academic problems sinking higher ed, but this is a clear cultural problem that needs reform. In the meantime, one takeaway from this review is that students seeking to work their way into higher incomes should view with suspicion the party scene maintained by elites.

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  • Joseph Blieu

    What is sad is that in order to be successful at the highest corporate or government levels you need to have the party and social skills, contacts within various elite groups, and a credible presentation as an elite yourself. Being a grind guarantees a great professional career, if an MD even at the top. But corporate winners are not grinds but are the class elites. So go to Harvard or start your own company, or today, most likely both.

  • Anthony

    I hazard to proffer that America’s current inequality continues to be shaped and enhanced by politics (not just abstract market dynamics) rather than cultural partying – though college partying could be residual. If college partying helps to maintain inequality, then group interests and perspectives align and campus parties are means to continue post school advantages as cited (are partying college students that prescient). Still, such behavior parrots actual American class dynamics only with youthful exposure of privilege. But I suspect the yawning divide in our society is at best marginally affected by our partying college students and their class networks. “It is clear that many, if not most, Americans possess a limited understanding of the nature of the inequality in our society. They believe that there is less inequality than there is, they underestimate its adverse economic effects…and they overestimate the costs of taking action.”

  • Boritz

    You’re left with the idea that elites behave in an elitist manner and only about one person in a hundred ever makes it into the one percent.

  • stanbrown

    Inequality is not getting worse. What is getting worse is the tendency of liberals to use bogus statistics to lie to America. The working class today reports less of its income than 3 decades ago because a substantially higher percentage of compensation is now received in non-taxable benefits. The upper class now receives a much higher percentage of income in taxable form than was the case 3 decades ago. see e.g.

    So anyone using tax data to ‘demonstrate’ growing inequality is either ignorant of reality or knowingly misleading.

    As for the suggestion that colleges or governments need to regulate college partying … seriously?! Why not just stop rain from falling. It would be easier. And of all the problems in America today this has to rank right up there with drowning polar bears. Of course, if the effort to regulate is as successful as the implementation of obamacare or the effort by colleges to keep costs down or the enforcement of Prohibition ………….

  • qet

    Seriously, Via Meadia? Unless this post is ironic and I am just not picking up on that, this is hands-down the most ludicrous thing I have ever read in Via Meadia or anywhere in TAI. So the book/review/VM authors’ thesis is: rich kids treat college as a sort of finishing school and can party in frats with impunity, not-rich kids who mortgage their lives to the tuition bill can’t afford to idolize the rich slacker lifestye but join frats anyway, sustain their partying with C averages in Business Administration majors, and then can’t get an entry-level position at Goldman Sachs so they can repay the loans. Ergo, the fraternity system, or the “party culture”, is an ens rationis that is as real as Grendel’s mother and must be similarly put to the sword.

    Note to the college kids who write Via Meadia, all of whom no doubt resent and despise fraternities and will happily imbibe any silliness posing as analysis if it indicts or vilifies frats: The Theory of the Leisure Class was published over 110 years ago and The Great Gatsby 90 years ago. There is nothing new at work here, people.

  • Jagneel

    Easy solution is to make ‘easy majors’ less easy. For example, make GE requirement harder.

  • Loader2000

    Any decent graduate program in engineering and/or physical sciences will provide its own family of contacts and professional relations for any student with at least intermediate social skills. The community of graduate students in any hard science or engineering is its own fraternity, albeit with a lot more studying and less partying. The partying/socializing is more important for those studying softer subjects I think. If my son or daughter was a poor kid who wasn’t a social genius and I had no connections to offer him or her and he/she was terrible at math, I would recommend a trade school or the military over an English major, or perhaps an English degree earned at night AFTER completing trade school and having a job with a decent, steady income or using the GI bill to pay for college. There are lots and lots of ways to accomplish a given goal if you want it bad enough and have learned delayed gratification.

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