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Book Reviews: A Tapestry of Challenges

In keeping with this edition’s focus on top degree producing institutions, here are reviews of a few books that focus on the college experience:

From Diplomas to Doctorates: The Success of Black Women in Higher Education and its Implications for Equal Educational Opportunities for All, edited by V. Barbara Bush, Crystal Renee Chambers and Mary Beth Walpole with a foreword by Kassie Freeman and afterword by Wynetta Y. Lee, $24.95, Stylus Publishing, May 2010, ISBN-10: 1579223575, ISBN-13:978-1579223571, pp. 208.

Black women fare well in higher education, relative to Black men. This book argues, however, that the women face significant challenges at every step of the journey. The authors offer original research on some of the educational dilemmas, barriers and breakthroughs Black women experience.

Among the discussion topics: how young women attain social capital, how Black women adapt to subordinate status in graduate school and how Black women can successfully navigate the journey toward the doctorate. “This book documents that being a Black woman in the educational process is not easy,” writes Wynetta Y. Lee in the afterword.

Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education, by Ann L. Mullen, $50, Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2010, ISBN-10:080189770X, ISBN-13: 978-0801897702, pp. 264.

By comparing the experiences of students at institutions only a few miles but worlds apart, Ann Mullen underscores how American higher education perpetuates inequalities in the social order. Mullen, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, interviewed 100 students — 50 each at Yale University, the Ivy League citadel in New Haven, Conn., and Southern Connecticut State University, a public institution serving a largely commuter population. Mullen demonstrates how social class determines whether and where a student goes to college, why he or she chooses a major, and whether the graduate has the luxury of pursuing further education. Thus, graduates emerge on separate trajectories that maintain or widen the gaps.

“In these ways, the elite tier of higher education is a powerful engine of social reproduction, whereby accidents of birth are transformed into legitimate achievements,” Mullen writes.

The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another, by Rebecca D. Cox, $16.95 Harvard University Press, April 2011, ISBN-10: 0674060164, ISBN-13: 978-0674060166, pp. 216.

Have colleges kept pace with dramatic changes in student populations to offer meaningful and adequate education for today? Rebecca D. Cox, an assistant professor of education at Seton Hall University, spent more than five years looking for answers to that question.

As part of the research, she observed courses, talked to students and participated in site visits to colleges. For this book, she focuses on “the least selective and least prestigious colleges in the country: community colleges.” The author notes that increasing diversity — by race, ethnicity, income, immigrant status, employment — presents community college educators with a clientele that is vastly different from the “traditional” college student body. Often, she found, educators are lamenting “the disappearance of a kind of student” instead of adjusting teaching methods to help the ones who actually show up for instruction.

For their part, the students are often unprepared for college work and fearful of the system. The result is a huge “disconnect” between expectation and performance, leading to frustration, Cox says. She concludes that the challenge is to “reinvent college” to meet students where they are when they enter, while maintaining standards for where they need to be to graduate.

The Evolving Challenges of Black College Students: New Insights for Practice and Research, edited by Terrell L. Strayhorn and Melvin Cleveland Terrell with a foreword by Lemuel Waton, $29.95, Stylus Publishing, November 2010, ISBN-10: 1579222463, ISBN-13: 978-1579222468, pp. 248.

Challenges that confront Black college students today are different from those faced by earlier generations, but today’s students are hardly a monolithic group, the authors conclude. In this book, 14 scholars look at a variety of issues, including the importance of spirituality for Black students, “life or death” college choice dilemmas for Black women, high achievement in spite of adversity, the environment for gay males on campuses and the challenges for Black male students. The book aims to help researchers, faculty, administrators and students understand the college environment and produce better outcomes.


Angela P. Dodson is a longtime contributor to Diverse.

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