The literature on inequality tends to be a hard slog, dense with charts and graphs, and clogged with technical detail about wealth vs. income, capital, the 1%, the .01% and the .001%. Journalist George Packer aimed at something more relatable in his National Book Award–winning The Unwinding, the personal stories of a cross section of six Americans ranging from an assembly line worker-community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio, to a former staffer for Joe Biden. But while his subjects’ struggles in the twenty-first century economy were movingly depicted, they were ultimately isolated actors whose unique drama and psychology seemed pressed into service to represent the author’s a priori vision.

Paying for the Party, by the sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, is more narrow in focus, yet it manages to give a rich portrayal of America’s most fundamental class divide with a group of individuals at the most formative period of their lives in a single, familiar environment. It is the most clear-eyed look at class in contemporary America I’ve seen. It may also be the most disheartening.

Integral to the book’s success is its setting: the freshman floor of a “party dorm” at a large Midwestern state university—evidently Indiana University—that the writers call MU. Though the dorm attracted more white, affluent students than the university as a whole, its residents run the gamut from the “socialite” daughters of well-connected businessmen paying impossibly high out-of-state tuitions to middle-class “wannabes” whose in-state parents were draining their savings to help their daughters achieve the dream and struggling working-class girls from broken families whose slacker or military boyfriends beckoned from their rural hometowns.

Parents’ level of sophistication, or lack thereof, plays a huge role in their college kids’ lives.

Still, at MU, parental income turns out to mean a great deal more than the difference between automatically paid tuition and board on the one hand and twenty-hour-a-week jobs in big box stores on the other. Parents’ level of sophistication, or lack thereof, continued to play a huge role in their quasi-independent kids’ lives. College-educated parents were able to advise their daughters about everything from choice of major, to grad school applications, to romantic relationships which threatened to get serious; the wealthier girls, even the socialites, implicitly understood that their kind should wait to start a family till thirty or so. Less educated parents, on the other hand, couldn’t understand the challenges their daughters faced in balancing study and the party scene or choosing which courses to take. These girls wanted to start their families early in their twenties, and their parents were inclined to agree with them.

The more affluent girls also carried with them eighteen years of education in the subtle social vocabulary required for membership in their class, not to mention fresh memories of the adolescent competition of the high school cafeteria. Less privileged girls wore tube tops and sported home-dyed hair that immediately labeled them as less-thans. Unlike the wealthier girls, whose siblings and family friends had prepped them on the MU culture, they were clueless about the cruel hierarchy of the Greek system, which dominated the social life of younger students in the party dorm. Nor were they warned about the habits of frat boys who were inclined to treat “slutty” girls of the working class more crudely—if that’s possible—than they were the “sexy” girls of the upper middle class. Occasionally, their provincialism took the nasty form of anti-Semitic and racist remarks; growing up in rural Indiana, they had no need to learn the contemporary etiquette of diversity already familiar to the wealthier suburbanites and city dwellers.

Ironically, the ethos of diversity designed to nourish students’ capacity for acceptance and tolerance became, at least in the hands of adolescent girls with little adult supervision, just another tool for status jockeying. The upper-class girls cultivated what the authors call a “being mean nicely” approach to their inferiors. They found ways to remind their less affluent peers of their beta status on a daily basis, by talking about designer brands and vacation destinations unfamiliar to a Walmart crowd, or ignoring them when it came time to go to dinner, or posting photos on Facebook from the previous night’s party from which the “losers” had been excluded. Along with a few affluent girls unwilling or unable to compete on this Darwinian savannah, students who might have used college as a stepping stone into the middle class became loners, holed away in their dorm rooms and thinking wistfully of their hometowns.

Their isolation might not have been so demoralizing had the university provided opportunities for genuine intellectual growth or even simple guidance about appropriate career paths. It did not. The less privileged girls arrived at college with as much disadvantage in the classroom as they had in their dorm. They usually needed remedial classes, which added to the expenses they already could barely manage. They were rarely exposed to serious students; although several of their floormates had professional aspirations, the more intellectually ambitious students tended to be ghettoized onto separate honors floors.

Most of the well-to-do girls on their floor gravitated towards easy majors in interior design or sports marketing. That worked well enough for those who were heading towards “stylish” careers in media and communications and whose parents had the connections for internships and entry-level jobs, as well as the money to support their moves to New York or Chicago, where such jobs were located and where they were likely to find dating partners of their own class. They were a disaster for girls who could only afford to move back to their small hometowns, where the romantic possibilities were limited to locals, and who, in any case, lacked the polish for Sex and the City careers.

Paying for the Party rubs our faces in a class gulf in the United States that is cultural as well as economic.

By the time of the final interview five years after freshman year, two-thirds of the upper middle-class girls were headed to jobs and social lives in major cities that promised they would be able to take part in the “reproduction of privilege.” All but two graduated college in four years. A third of them looked less successful, either because of low GPA’s or families who were unable to help them move out of state.

The numbers were completely different for the less affluent. Five years in, only one of the twenty girls of the mid to lower middle and working class had a job with benefits that required a college degree. Others were waitressing, teaching preschool, working as bank tellers, or for one reason or another, still working on their B.A. All but one of the working class girls had dropped out of MU. The most successful were those who transferred to regional colleges where the costs, curriculum, and culture were more suited to their predicament.

In short, Armstrong and Hamilton throw a large bucket of icy water on the common belief in higher education as the route into the middle class. The problem they describe is bigger than anything Pell grants, or indeed any scholarship or loan programs, could solve. Paying for the Party rubs our faces in a class gulf in the United States that is cultural as well as economic. It may well be that other schools can avoid the excessive snobbery and wealth advantage of the MU party dorm. The City College of New York, for instance, continues to cater fairly successfully to first-in-the-family college students, as, I’m sure, do many other public institutions. Other schools may soften the shock of the wealth and culture gap by providing better counseling; smaller campuses may be better at promoting more esprit de corps. But educators at larger party schools like Indiana University be warned: they need to mind the gap.