An in-depth look at the lives of young women who started college on the same floor of a large dorm at a middle-tier public university shows that the high school peer culture that divides students into homecoming queens, wannabes and nerds thrives in college, to the disadvantage of many.
"Parents and college administrators are naively optimistic about the atmosphere for freshman women in large party dorms," said Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who conducted the study with colleague Laura Hamilton of the University of California at Merced.
For many, the experience is not a good one, and we found that it can affect the trajectories of their lives for many years to come."
Armstrong and Hamilton immersed themselves in the lives of 53 women as they moved into their dorm, following them for five years to see how their lives developed.
Although only about a third of the women started their college years as socialites or wannabes, all of their lives were shaped by the dominance of the party pathway at this school.
The party pathway was a set of social and academic arrangements—including a powerful Greek party scene and an array of easy majors—facilitating a primarily social experience.
Even those who entered determined to succeed academically were judged by their success at attracting the attention of high-status men and making it into sororities.
In a new book based on the study, "Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality," Armstrong and Hamilton detail the experiences of the women, who had a great deal in common when they entered college but whose situations were dramatically different down the road.