In 2004, two women who were long past college age settled into a dorm room at a large public university in the Midwest. Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, and Laura Hamilton, then a graduate assistant and now a sociology professor at the University of California at Merced, were there to examine the daily lives and attitudes of college students. Like two Jane Goodalls in the jungle of American young adulthood, they did their observing in the students’ natural habitat.
The researchers interviewed the 53 women on their floor every year for five years—from the time they were freshmen through their first year out of college.
Their findings about the students’ academic success later formed the basis for Paying for the Party, their recent book about how the college experience bolsters inequality. They found that the women’s “trajectories were shaped not only by income ... but also by how much debt they carried, how much financial assistance they could expect from their parents, their social networks, and their financial prospects.”