Getting to the Deep End

Crabby recommends some books for a busman’s holiday…

Whether you’re a college admission officer or a high school college counselor, it’s important to have knowledge of the field of college admission beyond the viewbook or your students’ GPAs. In the first instance, you need to be more than a salesperson for your institution, you need to be an advocate for college attendance in general; in the second, you need a broad context in which to put the college admission process, so you can speak authoritatively to parents and students about the conditions affecting admission. No matter what, understanding the complexities of students’ lives is critical. The best practitioners on both sides of the desk are those who have a comprehensive view of college admission as it affects students and intersects with the realities of American life and culture. Without those qualities, the whole business can seem shallow and insubstantial.

This is especially true when it comes to students from low-income and first generation-college backgrounds. The intersection of their social, cultural, and educational backgrounds make their interactions with the world of college and college admission particularly fraught. Recruiting, enrolling, and retaining those students have significant personal, social, and cultural implications; encouraging them even to consider applying to college can affect how a high school looks at and implements its curriculum and other features. No one way exists to guarantee any particular outcome, and no particular prescription, such as ensuring that the most capable students enroll at the most challenging school they can get into, can “cure” the problems that these students encounter once they are in college.iu

Three book-length studies provide well-observed, readable, and sympathetic insights into what students from varied backgrounds go through when they get to college. They take longitudinal and sociological looks at the college experience through the eyes of students themselves, with appropriate commentary and observations that help expand our understanding of college life and its effects on these students. Although first generation-college and low-income students play major roles, the value of these books comes largely from how they bring students from all backgrounds into the conversation.

The first book is Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, sociology professors at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Merced, respectively. Despite its somewhat ominous title (I had expected it to be yet another indictment of decadent college culture), it proved to be a well-researched and humane look at a group of women attending “Midwest University,” a real but unidentified institution. Over five years, the authors and their assistants lived with the young women in their dorm (freshman year) and interviewed them extensively. Over that time, they observed how the students adapted to university life, discovered their places in its hierarchy, and relied on their backgrounds to navigate the university’s social and academic mazes.

Although there were only 53 women in the study, the authors conducted 202 interviews and recorded over 2,000 pages of field notes, providing a depth of observation that enables them to provide fully rounded portraits not only of the students but also of the various paths they take during their college years. The dorm chosen was known as a “party dorm,” which provided particularly sharp pathways for the students to choose as they create their college careers.

Armstrong and Hamilton argue that “college experiences and class trajectories out of college are shaped by the fit between individual characteristics (resources associated with class background and orientation to college) and organizational characteristics–namely, the college pathways provided by a student’s university.” In other words, they clearly identify the dynamic relationship between a student’s background and the college’s structure, indicating that how students succeed or fail in college is due to a complex combination of factors that is always moving, developing, and changing, not merely a one-to-one cause and effect condition.

The students studied at MU came from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Some were upper class and affluent, others, lower class and even rural. Once they became part of the university and the dorm, they acquired additional identities that influenced the path they would join. Some were “socialites,” others “wannabes,” and others “isolates;” examples of each lived on the floor freshman year. The emphasis here was on fitting in socially, emphasis being on joining the university’s “party pathway” in order to feel included in its dominant culture. This description outlines the situation:

Indeed, on Thursday through Sunday nights, after the flurry of hair drying, makeup applying, and outfit borrowing died down, the silence on the floor was deafening. The only people left were isolates…[Those] who did not engage in this college pastime were seen by others as ‘weird,’ not worth associating with, and potentially contaminating.

Socialites, women who were comfortable with their status from the beginning, usually chose the “party pathway” as their route through MU. Armstrong and Hamilton identify two other pathways, “mobility” and “professional,” each one associated primarily (although not exclusively) with women from particular backgrounds. The authors find that the “party pathway” dominated the university and was the most problematic for non-“socialites.” They also note that the university’s organizational structure supports this pathway over the others, which were more attractive to low-income and first generation-college students who saw their time there as a means to move up in class/status or to find a professional work situation. How the students traveled these paths, how the student/ university dynamics affected them, and what happened to them immediately after MU round out the book.

iu-1The other two books are really one study in two volumes that looks at how race and class affect students’ experiences at a small liberal arts college in New England, namely, Amherst. Psychology professor Elizabeth Aries turned her attention to the experiences of 58 African American and white Amherst students from varied backgrounds in Race and Class Matters at an Elite College. Through interviews and surveys, she addresses the dynamics of diversity through the eyes of students who both embody and experience it in a highly selective college environment.

In this first volume, issues of race and class are dissected as they affect the freshman class in 2005-06. Aries asks questions that take us beyond the usual assumptions about diversity’s goodness to examine how it works in the lives of actual students. She writes,

Students at the college have the opportunity in the dorms, in extra-curricular activities, and at social events, to get to know students from a broad range of races and class backgrounds. But do they? Are students able to overcome apprehensions they might have about how to act with members of another race or social class, anxieties about how they might be viewed and whether they might be accepted or rejected? Or do students stay within their comfort zones and self-segregate with friends of their own race and class?

Throughout the book, we see examples of the difficulties and frustrations as well as some of the successes students have as they adapt to Amherst’s cultural milieu. Particularly interesting are observations Aries makes about issues like black authenticity, i.e., how “black” is “black?”:

…blacks on campus…also faced external judgments by both blacks and whites about how ‘black’ they were. Self-definition and external judgments of ‘blackness’ by others were not always consistent. External judgments about where students fell on an implicit scale of ‘blackness’ might be determined by skin tone, tastes, interests, forms of speech, and whether they hung out with blacks. The closer students came to stereotypical images of urban black youth the blacker they were considered to be.

She doesn’t limit observations to low-income and first generation-college students, either. Her participants come from affluent as well as low-income backgrounds, so we get a well-rounded look at how students interact and adapt to each other.

In the second volume, Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite CollegeAries, along with her husband Richard Berman, lets the students speak more for themselves, four years after the first book. Issues of stereotyping, privilege (or the lack thereof), relationships, and many others affecting students move front and center. Students discuss cross-class and cross-race dating, living up or living down others’ expectations, and other topics personal and more general are heard here.

In letting students take the lead, Aries gives us the opportunity to listen to them discuss what’s important to them frankly and personally. She also lets us hear how and what students have learned from each other during their time at Amherst. Sometimes their conclusions sound pat in the “I learned that people aren’t really that different underneath” way, but the sincerity behind such comments seems clear.

What ties each book together internally and with each other is Aries’ subtle guidance and analysis of the topics being discussed. The topics of race and class are volatile, but Aires weaves them together with clear understanding and sympathy for the students and their experiences. Additionally, she ends chapters with discussions that help put topics in perspective and offer possible ways to productively continue the conversations in personally and educationally sound ways.

These studies provide readers with a clear window into contemporary student life at contrasting institutions. Although small statistically, they resonate because of the writers’ careful observations and understanding of their subjects. They deepen our understanding of the complex web of interactions that influence students from all backgrounds as they navigate the college world. By demonstrating that college experiences are multi-faceted and not linear, they offer much-needed insights into student life and development at a crucial moment in their progress toward adulthood.