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Panel discusses inequality at universties

Adam Glanzman/Daily
Phil DeLoria, LSA associate dean for undergraduate education, spoke on a panel discussion about the state of higher education in the United States at Lane Hall on Monday. Buy this photo

By Jack Turman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 17, 2014

As student organizations rally on campus for diversity and inclusion, a panel discussing the inequality ingrained in organizational structures at universities across the nation took place at Lane Hall Monday evening.

The panel was based off the book “Paying for the Party,” co-authored by Elizabeth A. Armstrong, associate professor of sociology and women’s studies, and Laura T. Hamilton, associate professor of University of California, Merced.

The discussion, organized by the Institute for Research on Women & Gender, included Armstrong, Elizabeth Cole, chair and professor of women’s studies, Phil Deloria, LSA associate dean for undergraduate education and Michael Bastedo, associate professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the School of Education.

“Paying for the Party” examined the results from Armstrong and Hamilton’s five-year case study where they immersed themselves in the college lifestyle by soliciting feedback from an all female freshman dorm at a Midwestern University. Armstrong and Hamilton went to this dorm at certain times of the week and day to interview freshmen living on that floor. After the first year of the study, Armstrong and Hamilton left that floor with the rest of the freshmen and contacted all 53 females to get interviewed once a year.

The university in the book is named “Midwest University” because Armstrong did not want students and parents to perceive this university as the only one with aspects of inequality.

The event began with Armstrong describing her book, followed by the remarks from the panel speakers and questions from the audience. Armstrong and Hamilton found that freshmen students at the university who lived in a particular dorm and floor diverged into three different pathways that were caused by the school’s organizational framework.

Armstrong’s findings indicated that the most prevalent pathway was the “party” pathway — a university’s organizational support system that allows students to have the social experience of college. Greek Life, residence halls and historically “easy” majors promoted the party pathway.

Armstrong said some of the women she studied saw college as a place to constantly have fun. These students’ parents agreed with their child and viewed college as a “consumption product.”

“(The students) valued the social stuff right from the start,” Armstrong said. “It is the case that there are at least some families who actually don’t really expect their kids to learn that much in college.”

Armstrong and Hamilton found that certain residence halls, specifically with rich, white females, can funnel these students into sororities, which contributes to the lack of diversity in certain clubs and activities.

The second pathway is the professional pathway, which included advantages to a student because of their socioeconomic status that usually led to a profession in law or medicine.

While their study indicated that the professional pathway had its benefits, it showed that there was a downside to this pathway, due to parental influence. The women who Armstrong and Hamilton studied consisted of upper and upper-middle class females whose parents strongly influenced the student’s academic decisions, such as deciding a major.

“The parents were providing a lot of the advising that one wouldn’t imagine the school should do,” Armstrong said.

The third pathway is the mobility pathway — the organizational pathway that levels the field among all students, no matter what the socioeconomic status of the student. Armstrong said this mobility pathway was hidden because of the organizational framework and parental influence on students.

According to their studies, Armstrong said these three pathways pose challenges to universities who want to increase diversity on campus. The main problem discussed at the panel was how to improve the ability of low-income students to get on the professional pathway.

To achieve this goal and to combat this problem across the nation, Armstrong said universities can schedule more classes on Friday and maintain a high standard of academic rigor. Challenging courses decrease the likelihood of easy majors contributing to the party pathway.

“That right there takes out a whole night a week of partying,” Armstrong said. “There has been research that suggest that there are fewer emergency room visits by simply requiring students to be in classes. It uses the classroom space of the university more effectively.”

While Deloria said he believes there is overlap between structures described in the book and at the University, he added that the University can combat this issue with living learning communities and its academic programs.

“We’ve got a number of programs that echo professional pathways,” Deloria said.

LSA senior Kaitlin Keane, an residence advisor for female honors students, said she sees students on certain pathways, especially the party pathway because of Greek Life. She added that this Greek Life system provides comfort and a sense of belonging to freshmen women.

Clarification: A previous version of this article did not mention the event's organizers. The Institute for Research on Women & Gender organized the panel discussion.