DIVERSE BOOKSHELF: Further Along the River

A new study sheds light on the effects of student life on college success.

Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities, by Dr. Camille Z. Charles, Dr. Mary J. Fischer, Dr. Margarita A. Mooney, Dr. Douglas S. Massey, $35, Princeton University Press, April 2009, ISBN-10: 0691139644, ISBN- 13: 978-0691139647, pp. 320.

In 2002, three of these authors participated in an analysis of what characteristics students from divergent backgrounds in the U.S. brought with them to college. The resulting book, The Source of the River: the Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities, was well received at the time.

That team’s work followed a 1998 study by Dr. William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, which concluded that affirmative action in higher education resulted in significant benefits to students and society. At the same time, the research unveiled disparities in academic performance for different racial and ethnic groups that continue to disturb scholars and administrators.

That study by the former presidents of Princeton and Harvard universities drew from a survey conducted in the mid-1990s on the experiences of people who had been freshmen at select colleges and universities at intervals spanning 40 years. It was heralded as an extraordinary breakthrough in providing empirical data and insight on the effects of affirmative action. Because that study looked back at collegiate experiences after the subjects had been out of college for some time, however, researchers could not adequately explain what factors did or did not contribute to academic success.

To provide more answers, the Mellon Foundation, which Bowen headed, funded the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, which interviewed representative samples of students of diverse backgrounds at 28 schools who entered college in 1999 and interviewed them again each year through 2003.

The authors of Taming the River used data from the longitudinal survey for The Source of the River to look at what effects the differences in students’ backgrounds had on first-term academic performance in college. In Taming the River, they take a logical step forward to examine what students do in the first two years after they get there and what the experience does to them to help explain why students from certain racial and ethnic minority groups lag behind those from other groups in academic achievement.

Students were asked about their course selection, majors, living arrangements, visits home, allocation of time, sports, personal issues, finances, jobs, academic preparation, goals, effort, racial experiences, bias, dating and other issues.

Among other things, the authors conclude that, while all students experience challenges in entering college, “the pressures are generally more intense for minority groups and the severity of these ‘normal’ challenges partly explains the lower performance of African-Americans and Latinos relative to Whites and Asians.” Black and Latino students had to deal with pressures so unique that White students, faculty and administrators might have difficulty “even visualizing these minority-specific challenges,” including racism, stigma and fear of stereotyping, the researchers said.

Their work suggests colleges and universities are in a good position to address
disparities that result from social segregation, discrimination and bias, but the postracial world has not become reality on or off campus. Schools will have to dig deep to understand what roles they can play in helping disadvantaged minority students overcome societal challenges and get the most out of college regardless of how they arrived.

Bridging the Diversity Divide: Globalization and Reciprocal Empowerment in Higher Education: ASHE Higher Education Report, Volume 35, Number 1 (J-B ASHE Higher Education Report Series (AEHE)), by Dr. Edna Chun, Alvin Evans, $29), Jossey-Bass, May 2009, ISBN-10: 0470525622, ISBN-13: 978-0470525623, pp. 152.

Dr. Edna Chun, vice president for human resources and equity at Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Alvin Evans, associate vice president for human resources at Kent State University in Ohio, contribute to the discussion of how diversity on campus can be achieved in a monograph for this series.

The book is offered as a guide for colleges and universities to measure where they need to go and how to get there to create inclusive campuses and produce graduates who can compete in a global economy, using strategies based on research and a model of “reciprocal empowerment.”