Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.
Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.

“What’s your major?”

Often the reasons for choosing engineering or English extend beyond the student’s enthusiasm for the subject. Sociologist Kim Weeden explains to The Atlantic that parental income can play a part: students from wealthy families are more likely to study humanities and fine arts, while their lower-income peers tend to choose more “practical” majors like physics, engineering, or computer science. Weeden says:

It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment.

In other words, if wealthy students cannot get lucrative jobs with a ceramics or history degree, they have a monetary safety net. NYU’s Dalton Conley elaborates:

It might seem like there’s a lot of social mobility that the offspring of doctors are artists, or what have you, but maybe they traded off occupational autonomy and freedom … They still have a high education level and they still have wealth.

Future employment is not the only explanation for why students from different income brackets choose their courses of study. Often, students from higher-income families have more prior exposure to arts, music, and literature, sparking an interest in these areas before college. Furthermore, according to Conley, the prestige of a major and its associated careers may matter more than the size of the actual paycheck:

There’s a notion that what people are maximizing is not income, per se, or wealth, per se, or prestige, per se, but just there’s a general sense of social class, and people in each generation make trade-offs.

A fine arts degree may have fewer career opportunities, but it also has an association with high socioeconomic status that a law enforcement degree does not.

The men of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Emory University archives.
The men of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Emory University archives.


A revoked charter. Public condemnation by a University president. A pair of expulsions. The reactions to the now-infamous video of members of fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing “There will never be a n*gger in SAE” have been swift and damning. Despite the public shock, though, this isn’t an isolated—or new—phenomenon. Such issues are reflective of the broader nature and roots of Greek life at colleges and universities across the southern United States, explains the Washington Post with help from work by UConn sociologist Matthew Hughey.

SAE, for example, was founded over 100 years ago in the Antebellum South. During the Civil War, 369 of its 400 members fought for the Confederacy. And along with the most recent incident, SAE chapters have been castigated for racist events including a “Jungle Party” at Texas A&M and a “Cripmas Party” at Clemson University. The Washington Post quotes Hughey’s study of southern Greek organizations: “law prohibits race-based exclusion in college sororities and fraternities in the United States… [but at Mississippi State University] racial segregation prevails.” That’s because these organizations were historically homogenous and exclusionary. Hughey went on, “Until after World War II, U.S. Greek-letter societies reflected the dominant portion of the college population: white, male, Christian students of ‘proper breeding.’”

Since Greek organizations are so self-consciously steeped in history and tradition, it’s not easy to get away from their pasts. So while “nonwhite membership in white Greek-letter organizations is often hailed as a transformative step toward equality and unity,” according to Hughey, the word “fraternity” is unlikely to conjure images of “Southern hospitality,” let alone diversity or inclusivity, anytime soon.

Could loans help with the cum laude?

Heading off to college with a parent’s blank check in hand won’t help students earn high marks, according to sociologist Laura Hamilton. Hamilton’s study, published in the latest Annual Review of Sociology, finds that, regardless of the type of four-year institution they attend, students who receive greater financial contributions from their parents tend to earn a lower GPA along the way (even if they are more likely to complete their degree).

Hamilton says the effect on grades is “modest”—“not enough to make your child flunk”—but nonetheless “surprising because everybody has always assumed that the more you give, the better your child does.”

As the New York Times reports:

Dr. Hamilton found that the students with the lowest grades were those whose parents paid for them without discussing the students’ responsibility for their education. Parents could minimize the negative effects, she said, by setting clear expectations about grades and progress toward graduation.

“Ultimately, it’s not bad to fund your children,” [Hamilton] said. “My kids are little, but I plan to pay for them—after we talk about how much it costs, and what grades I expect them to achieve.”

Photo courtesy Murray State University via

Why do we impose upon young, talented, and serious-minded high-school seniors the imperative of selecting an academic major that is, more often than not, completely irrelevant to, or at least inconsistent with, their heartfelt desires and true career objectives: to be professional athletes?

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Pargman, an emeritus professor of educational psychology at FSU, poses this question. The answer, he seems to believe is, “Who knows?” Suggesting an improvement to the current “deep dysfunction of college athletics,” Pargman goes on to say that, since it’s plain that “student athletes want to be professional entertainers,” we should let “family members, friends, and high-school coaches acknolwedge and support that goal… to study football, basketball, or baseball.”

But how? Well, “higher education, for better or worse, purports to be a pathway to a vocational future,” Pargman argues, so let’s create a “sports performance major.” The first two years would look much like any other liberal arts education, with the junior and senior years offering specialized training in everything from physiology to heavy resistance training labs, elements of contract law, kinesiology, and an introduction to motor learning. “Such prescribed coursework would be relevant to the athlete’s career objectives,” Pargman writes, and, since the students would also be playing for school teams, their experience would be analogous to that of a musical theater student: “They study their craft and display their acquired skill before campus audiences.”

Of course, a great portion of the student-athletes would still not go on to be professional athletes, but not only is this true for many collegiate programs, the major’s design would allow students a chance to gain knowledge of other associated fields. If nothing else, the author closes, “What I propose would be infinitely more honest than the charade that now prevails” as students dreaming of a pro career so often “completely lack interest in the mandatory and largely arbitrary and convenient choice of major.” Essentially, a sports performance major might let students stop acting.

Protesting Scott Walker
In an op-ed published in the Raleigh-based paper, the Newsobserver, sociology Ph.D student Amanda Gengler provides insight into what is at stake in the current political struggle in Wisconsin. To do so Gengler draws upon her experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she earned her master’s degree.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison 10 years ago, every month a few dollars of my stipend went to pay dues to the TAA; a unique union that represents and protects graduate employees working in the UW-System. In return, I worked under a contract that ensured full health care benefits and basic dental care (with no out-of-pocket premiums), and tuition remission (without which my education would not have been possible) as well as other fair labor protections.

Now, even after each subsequent renegotiation of the rights for Wisconsin’s graduate employees has resulted in more and more concessions, current Gov. Scott Walker is proposing to remove the TAA’s collective bargaining rights altogether. This would make it impossible to fight for any of these protections, all of which could be immediately revoked.

Graduate students are not alone in seeing this as an attack on the education system.

Under the rallying cry “Hands off our Teachers,” undergraduates have taken to the streets in recent days alongside their graduate student instructors.

Gengler cautions us to not see this as an isolated threat directed at the University system.

Wisconsin’s 3,000 graduate student workers are but one of the many constituencies that will be directly harmed by the state government’s attack on unions and workers’ rights. As Wisconsin’s unions offer up economic concessions in terms of pay and premiums, only to be completely rebuffed by state lawmakers, it is clear that this issue is not about the budget: it is about ending workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The op-ed serves as a call for all workers and unions to pay close attention to what is occurring in Wisconsin. While the situation appears bleak, Gengler leaves us with a statement of resolve:

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have those rights know what they are worth, and the thousands who continue to flood Madison’s streets make it clear that the right to fight is one thing they will not concede.

fiftyeight/threehundredsixtyfiveAh…to be a college student. Days spent on the college quad, frisbee or text book in hand, and late nights filled with frivolity. It is a time many people look back upon fondly, reminiscing of a simpler time. However, recent studies highlighted by the NY Times and Slate suggest college is not the carefree place it is often made out to be.

Tamar Lewin of the NY Times reports that the emotional health of freshman entering college is at an all time low.

In the survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as “below average” in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.

The statistic is seen as confirmation of what college counselors are encountering on a daily basis.

“More students are arriving on campus with problems, needing support, and today’s economic factors are putting a lot of extra stress on college students, as they look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side.” said Brian Van Brunt, director of counseling at Western Kentucky University and president of the American College Counseling Association.

This pressure is in part due to a combination of increased, and internalized, expectations and the devaluing of having ‘just’ a college degree.

While first-year students’ assessments of their emotional health was declining, their ratings of their own drive to achieve, and academic ability, have been going up, and reached a record high in 2010, with about three-quarters saying they were above average.
“These days, students worry that even with a college degree they won’t find a job that pays more than minimum wage, so even at 15 or 16 they’re thinking they’ll need to get into an M.B.A. program or Ph.D. program.” said Jason Ebbeling, director of residential education at Southern Oregon University.

To make matters worse, Lippy Copeland reports in Slate that social networking websites, which have become pervasive on college campuses, only compound the suffering of the unhappy.

Led by Alex Jordan, who at the time was a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s psychology department, the researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends’ reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. “They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life.”

The results of both reports are particularly concerning to women. Each study found that women reported higher stress and lower emotional well-being. According to Linda Sax, a professor of education at U.C.L.A. and former director of the freshman study, leisure activity helps us understand the gender gap.

“One aspect of it is how women and men spent their leisure time,” she said. “Men tend to find more time for leisure and activities that relieve stress, like exercise and sports, while women tend to take on more responsibilities, like volunteer work and helping out with their family, that don’t relieve stress.”

Copeland’s article also highlights the significance of leisure time in reporting that women are not only more likely to second guess major life decisions and measure themselves against others success, but they are also more likely to be active on Facebook.

Each article highlights youth confronting a time of increased pressure and uncertainty. While there are few simple answers, Copeland’s article provides a useful reminder when she turns once more to Jordan, now a postdoctoral fellow studying social psychology at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, who suggests

we might do well to consider Facebook profiles as something akin to the airbrushed photos on the covers of women’s magazine. No, you will never have those thighs, because nobody has those thighs. You will never be as consistently happy as your Facebook friends, because nobody is that happy.


In November, Arizona joined California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, and Washington by banning affirmative action in higher education.  Miller-McCune recently reflected on how these bans are failing to “keep pace with the changing demographics” of the United States.

Take the case of California, as reported in Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, a new book on the state’s voter-approved ban on affirmative action known as Proposition 209. In 1994, four years before the measure went into effect, when colleges were giving a boost to applicants based on race, 38 percent of high school graduates and 18 percent of University of California students were African American, Latino or Native American. In 2008, after a decade with the ban, these minorities represented nearly half of high school graduates but only 20 percent of UC students.

“By stepping back from its commitment to affirmative action, we believe California and other states and colleges have contributed to an increase in racial and ethnic stratification,” wrote co-editors Eric Grodsky, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, and, Michal Kurlaender, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis. Within college types, [underrepresented minority] students tended to shift from higher- to lower-quality colleges and universities. … African American and Latino undergraduates in the state of California may be worse off now than they were 10 years ago.”

Peter Hinrichs, an economist at Georgetown, also weighs in on the effects of these bans.

Taking a broad look at college enrollment and racial composition across the country between 1995 and 2003, economist Peter Hinrichs found that affirmative action bans have no effect on the typical four-year college or the typical student. But at public universities in the top 50 of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, he found, the numbers of blacks and Latinos typically drop 30 percent and 27 percent, respectively, after affirmative action bans are imposed, compared to pre-ban enrollments, while the numbers of whites and Asian Americans increase 5 percent to 6 percent.

Over a broader range — the top 115 public and private colleges in the U.S. News rankings — the numbers of black and Latino students drop 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively, at schools with affirmative action bans, Hinrichs found.

Some supporters of the bans claim that many students who are ethnic and racial minorities attend mediocre high schools and are thus not equipped for the academic rigors of college.  But, social scientists have found otherwise.

A 2010 study co-authored by Marta Tienda, a Princeton University sociologist, showed that black and Latino students who were admitted to the University of Texas at Austin on the basis of their high school rankings consistently got as good or better grades in college than the affluent whites with higher SAT scores whom they replaced. The minority students also were equally or more likely to graduate in four years.

Read more about these  studies and attempts to replace affirmative action laws in the full article.


The website that many of you will visit after this one (or may have already visited!) is providing sociologists with new research opportunities.

Andreas Wimmer and Kevin Lewis used facebook to study friendships among college freshman and found that race’s impact on friendships may be overstated.

“Sociologists have long maintained that race is the strongest predictor of whether two Americans will socialize,” says lead author Andreas Wimmer, professor of sociology at UCLA. “But we’ve found that birds of a feather don’t always flock together. Whom you get to know in your everyday life, where you live, and your country of origin or social class can provide stronger grounds for forging friendships than a shared racial background.”

To reach these conclusions, Wimmer and Lewis studied the social networks of college freshmen by examining tagged photos on facebook.

True to past research, the sociologists initially saw same-race friendships develop rapidly: White students befriended each other one-and-a-half times more frequently than would be expected by chance, Latino students befriended each other four-and-a-half times more frequently, and African American students befriended each other eight times more frequently. But when the researchers dug deeper, race appeared to be less important than a number of other factors in forging friendships.

“Much of what at first appeared to be same-race preference, for instance, ultimately proved to be preference for students of the same ethnic background,” Lewis says. “Once we started controlling for the attraction of shared ethnic backgrounds or countries of origin, the magnitude of racial preference was cut almost in half.”

While Wimmer and Lewis stress that racial discrimination is still a problem, they believe past research may have exaggerated the role of race in social relationships.  Instead, social and physical constraints play a bigger role.

To read the entire article, click here.

This week, the New York Times explores the increasing number of 20- and 30-somethings living with their parents:

In 1980, 11 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds were living in multi-generational households. By 2008, 20 percent were.These sons and daughters of baby boomers living with their parents again have been labeled boomerangers.

The biggest increases were registered in these categories: nonwhite, foreign-born young men who had never been married, and college graduates. …

Last year, 37 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds were unemployed or no longer looking for work. Ten percent of young adults, ages 18 to 34, said in the Pew survey they had moved back with their parents because of the recession. Two in 10 are full-time students, a quarter are unemployed, and about a third said they had lived on their own before returning home.

Commentary from CUNY sociologist:

“As the great recession has deepened and the job market has become tighter and tighter for young people, most especially those from minority backgrounds, more and more return or never leave the parental nest,” said Prof. Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College of the City University of New York. “If such a trend continues or deepens, the economic crisis may be creating a true ‘Failure to Launch’ generation.”

Read more.

The Chicago Tribune noted that sociology students from Northern Illinois University are headed to Florida for spring break, but…

they won’t be relaxing in the sunshine.

They plan to build two Habitat for Humanity homes in four days.

Jack King of NIU’s Department of Sociology leads the annual outing. NIU crews have helped the nonprofit build about 25 homes in the Pensacola, Fla., area over the years.

Sociology graduate and undergraduate students come back, some year after year, to lend a hand.