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.