The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America's Selective Colleges and Universities / Edition 1

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African Americans and Latinos earn lower grades and drop out of college more often than whites or Asians. Yet thirty years after deliberate minority recruitment efforts began, we still don't know why. In The Shape of the River, William Bowen and Derek Bok documented the benefits of affirmative action for minority students, their communities, and the nation at large. But they also found that too many failed to achieve academic success. In The Source of the River, Douglas Massey and his colleagues investigate the roots of minority underperformance in selective colleges and universities. They explain how such factors as neighborhood, family, peer group, and early schooling influence the academic performance of students from differing racial and ethnic origins and differing social classes.

Drawing on a major new source of data—the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen—the authors undertake a comprehensive analysis of the diverse pathways by which whites, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians enter American higher education. Theirs is the first study to document the different characteristics that students bring to campus and to trace out the influence of these differences on later academic performance. They show that black and Latino students do not enter college disadvantaged by a lack of self-esteem. In fact, overconfidence is more common than low self-confidence among some minority students. Despite this, minority students are adversely affected by racist stereotypes of intellectual inferiority. Although academic preparation is the strongest predictor of college performance, shortfalls in academic preparation are themselves largely a matter of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.

Presenting important new findings, The Source of the River documents the ongoing power of race to shape the life chances of America's young people, even among the most talented and able.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Monthly - Jay Mathews
This is scholarship of the first order, a study that will influence thinking about our society for the next generation.
The Times Higher Education Supplement - Terence Kealey
This is a beautifully written book. Each word is so carefully chosen and the style so limpid that the text is a pleasure to read. . . . In short, this is a book that should be bought and read by every serious student of education.
Educational Review - Gerald Postiglione
This is a very valuable contribution to the sociological study of access to American higher education by ethnic minorities. It also contains useful information for campus personnel and academic staff. . . . [T]his is how social science should be written. . . . This book is highly relevant to those academic staff concerned with meaningful access for all to higher education.
Washington Monthly
This is scholarship of the first order, a study that will influence thinking about our society for the next generation.
— Jay Mathews
Educational Review
This is a very valuable contribution to the sociological study of access to American higher education by ethnic minorities. It also contains useful information for campus personnel and academic staff. . . . [T]his is how social science should be written. . . . This book is highly relevant to those academic staff concerned with meaningful access for all to higher education.
— Gerald Postiglione
The Times Higher Education Supplement
This is a beautifully written book. Each word is so carefully chosen and the style so limpid that the text is a pleasure to read. . . . In short, this is a book that should be bought and read by every serious student of education.
— Terence Kealey
From the Publisher

"This is scholarship of the first order, a study that will influence thinking about our society for the next generation."--Jay Mathews, Washington Monthly

"This is a beautifully written book. Each word is so carefully chosen and the style so limpid that the text is a pleasure to read. . . . In short, this is a book that should be bought and read by every serious student of education."--Terence Kealey, The Times Higher Education Supplement

"This is a very valuable contribution to the sociological study of access to American higher education by ethnic minorities. It also contains useful information for campus personnel and academic staff. . . . [T]his is how social science should be written. . . . This book is highly relevant to those academic staff concerned with meaningful access for all to higher education."--Gerald Postiglione, Educational Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691125978
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/27/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Douglas S. Massey is Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Camille Z. Charles is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Garvey F. Lundy is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida. Mary J. Fischer is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.

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Read an Excerpt

The Source of the River

The Social Origins of Freshmen at America's Selective Colleges and Universities
By Douglas S. Massey, Camille Z. Charles, Garvey F. Lundy, and Mary J. Fischer

Princeton University Press

Douglas S. Massey, Camille Z. Charles, Garvey F. Lundy, and Mary J. Fischer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691113262

Chapter One


PRIOR TO the civil rights movement of the 1960s, racial and ethnic minorities were substantially excluded from U.S. higher education. African Americans, in particular, were barred from most colleges and universities by a combination of de jure and de facto mechanisms, and they faced particularly severe barriers at the nation's most selective institutions. If they were able to go to college at all, it was to a historically black college or university. Although several elite private institutions such as Howard, Morehouse, and Spelman provided excellent training for the sons and daughters of the black elite, most African Americans were relegated to underfunded, racially segregated state institutions. The situation was not much better for Latinos, especially in Texas, where Mexican Americans were subject to the sanctions of Jim Crow.

The civil rights movement transformed race relations in the United States and produced vigorous efforts to incorporate African Americans and Latinos into the mainstream of American society. Nowhere was this effortmore apparent than in higher education. Led by the nation's elite institutions, American colleges and universities undertook deliberate attempts to recruit minority students through a variety of "affirmative actions." These efforts encompassed a range of mechanisms for enhancing minority recruitment and admissions. Initially, they were justified as an attempt to redress past racial injustices, but as immigration from Asia and Latin America transformed the United States, the rationale shifted from righting past wrongs to representing racial and ethnic "diversity" for its own sake.

The new recruitment and admissions practices had pronounced effects on the racial and ethnic composition of American colleges and universities. The share of nonwhites among U.S. college students increased substantially, going from 16% in 1976 to 27% in 1996 (National Center for Education Statistics 2001). Among African Americans aged 18-24, the share attending college went from 21% in 1972 to 30% in 2000, while the percentage of Latinos attending college went from 17% to 22%. Statistics on Asians have only recently become available, but as of the year 2000 they had the highest rate of college attendance of any racial or ethnic group, with 55% of those aged 18-24 enrolled in school (compared with 36% for whites).

As the decades wore on, however, it became increasingly clear that mere recruitment into former bastions of white academic privilege would not be enough to erase the large gap in educational attainment between Latinos and blacks, on the one hand, and whites and Asians, on the other (Glazer 1997). Despite a variety of retention efforts-increased financial aid, remedial education, special tutoring, peer advising, culturally sensitive dorms, and ethnically supportive student unions-once admitted to institutions of higher education, African Americans and Latinos continued to underperform relative to their white and Asian counterparts, earning lower grades, progressing at a slower pace, and dropping out at higher rates. More disturbing was the fact that these differentials persisted even after controlling for obvious factors such as SAT scores and family socioeconomic status (Bowen and Bok 1998).

The most basic indicator of success in college is graduation. Figure 1.1 shows trends in the percentage of those aged 25-29 who finished at least four years of college from 1977 to 1997. Despite two decades of affirmative action, intergroup differentials in college attainment have hardly changed, and by the end of the 1990s they even appeared to be widening. Through the early 1990s, roughly a quarter of all whites aged 25-29 finished college, compared with just 13% of blacks and around 10% of Latinos. After 1994, however, whites surged upward, reaching 29% by 1997. In contrast, blacks remained stuck at under 15% and Latinos at around 10%.

Longitudinal surveys offer another way to look at educational attainment. These surveys follow the educational progress of a cohort (an entering class) as it progresses through time. The College and Beyond Survey, for example, followed the 1979 and 1989 cohorts of freshmen at selective colleges and universities (see Bowen and Bok 1998). Graduation rates for Asians and whites in the earlier cohort were similar (around 88%) but substantially higher than those reported for Latinos (73%) and blacks (71%). Graduation rates were generally higher for the 1989 cohort, in which Asians displayed the highest graduation rate (96%), followed closely by whites (94%). Surprisingly, the rate for Latinos also rose substantially, reaching 90%, whereas the rate for blacks stagnated in relative terms, lagging behind at only 79%. Graduation rates for minorities were generally higher at more selective institutions (Bowen and Bok 1998).

Despite a multitude of studies, the literature remains inconclusive about the reasons for these persistent differentials. Special programs are being designed and implemented to improve black and Latino retention, but without any real understanding of the underlying causes of their higher dropout rates. One reason for our current lack of knowledge is the scarcity of good data. Studies of minority achievement draw heavily on administrative databases compiled for other purposes or rely on small convenience samples gathered at particular institutions. Across all studies, moreover, there is a remarkable lack of standardization and sophistication in design and analysis. As a result, apart from basic measures of family structure, socioeconomic status, and high school performance, we know relatively little about the traits and characteristics that members of different racial and ethnic groups bring with them when they arrive on campus, or about how such differences in background might affect outcomes in higher education.

Although we are now four decades into the great social experiment of affirmative action, no systematic, nationally representative study has yet sought to investigate the determinants of college success for different racial and ethnic groups. We sought to redress this gap by surveying representative samples of Asian, Latino, and black freshmen entering a set of twenty-eight selective colleges and universities in the fall of 1999. The institutions chosen for study were those used by Bowen and Bok (1998) in their College and Beyond Survey. Whereas the goal of Bowen and Bok was to understand "the shape of the river"-the path followed by minority students as they moved through life after college-ours was to comprehend the source of that river-who the students were, where they came from, what their characteristics were, and how these characteristics shaped their academic progress.

In the absence of reliable data, theoretical explanations have proliferated with no good way of choosing between them. For the most part, the various theories that have been proposed to this point are neither logically inconsistent nor mutually exclusive, and for that reason none can be rejected a priori. Probably all contain an element of truth, and the real question is which ones are most powerful in explaining academic performance compared with the alternatives. The only way to answer this question is empirically, using relevant, reliable, and representative data.

Such information is precisely what we sought to provide by launching the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF). In this volume we use data from the first wave of that survey, in which new students were interviewed as they arrived on campus as freshmen. Our purpose here is to learn all we can about the similarities and differences that whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians bring with them when they walk through the door on the first day of class. We wish not only to document these differences, but to understand the family, neighborhood, school, and peer circumstances from which they arose and, in turn, how they condition academic success during the first term of college. Differing backgrounds may or may not contribute to our understanding of differential rates of academic performance, but it is an obvious place to start. Before we begin our journey toward "the source of the river," however, we first review the different theoretical explanations that have so far been advanced to explain the academic underperformance of minorities in general, and African Americans in particular.

Theories of Minority Underperformance

Social science research on intergroup differences in educational achievement has, for the most part, focused on black-white differentials. Clearly the black-white divide has a special salience given the unique history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination experienced by African Americans in the United States. Since 1965, however, mass immigration has transformed the American reality to render the old notion of the black-white color line increasingly obsolete (Farley 1998; Bobo et al. 2000). The United States now houses a variegated population characterized not by a single, all-encompassing racial duality, but by a multidimensional intersection of changing racial and ethnic continua. Although any label is bound to be an oversimplification of this new, more complex reality, for practical reasons we focus on three groups that together constitute the bulk of what most people consider to be "minorities" in the United States: African Americans, Latinos, and Asians. All three groups are composed not only of natives with many generations of U.S. residence, but also of recently arrived immigrants and their children.

The Theory of Capital Deficiency

Perhaps the simplest and most widely recognized explanation for poor academic performance is that some people, for whatever reason, lack the resources needed for academic success. Such explanations range from the controversial claim that certain racial groups have less inherited intelligence (e.g., Herrnstein and Murray 1996) to more straightforward hypotheses that link poor academic performance to disadvantages stemming from low family income (Jencks et al. 1979; Fischer et al. 1996). Leaving genetic explanations aside, in the jargon of modern social science these explanations generally revolve around different notions of "capital deficiency," where capital comes in a variety of distinct forms.

The most commonly recognized form is financial capital: income, assets, and various monetary instruments that together comprise a household's economic resources. Obviously, children born into rich families are at a distinct advantage when it comes to preparing for college. Over the course of their lives, their parents are in a privileged position to purchase academic inputs of higher quality-not simply good schooling, private tutoring, and extracurricular training, but comfortable housing, good nutrition, and access to intellectual stimuli. When problems arise, moreover, wealthy parents can retain an army of specialists to help their offspring overcome whatever learning disabilities they face: educational psychologists, clinical diagnosticians, youth counselors, and child learning specialists.

In recent years, however, social scientists have identified other forms of capital relevant to the education and training of children. Human capital refers to the skills, abilities, and knowledge possessed by specific individuals (Schultz 1963; Becker 1964). Education itself is a form of human capital, and years of schooling is its most common indicator (though not without its flaws-see Blalock 1991). Under the precepts of human capital theory, parents invest in their children in the same way that entrepreneurs invest in a company, seeking to maximize their ultimate payoff-in this case the happiness, productivity, socioeconomic status, and prestige of their descendants in society.

Parents who themselves possess large quantities of human capital are in a better position to supervise and manage its acquisition by others (Steinberg 1996; Lareau 2000; Farkas 1996). College-educated parents are more likely than others to read to their children and provide intellectual stimulation within the home. They understand the process of schooling better, are less deferential to teachers and school authorities, and take a more active role in monitoring how their children are being taught and managing their education (Lareau 2000). Hence, one reason that minorities may experience academic difficulties in college is that, owing to a lack of access to education, their parents are less able to prepare them for higher education. Research also shows, moreover, that well-educated black parents are less able to transmit human capital to their children than comparably educated white parents, owing to a legacy of racism and discrimination (Duncan 1969).

Another form of capital is social capital: the tangible benefits and resources that accrue to people by virtue of their inclusion in a social structure (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). People gain access to social capital through membership in networks and institutions and then convert it into other forms of capital (such as education) to improve or maintain their position in society (Bourdieu 1986; Coleman 1990). When children are connected through ties of kinship or friendship to people who can help them prepare for college-socially, psychologically, culturally, and academically-then those ties constitute a source of social capital.

Finally, cultural capital refers to a knowledge of the norms, styles, conventions, and tastes that pervade specific social settings and allow individuals to navigate them in ways that increase their odds of success. This concept originated in the theoretical writings of Max Weber (see Swidler 1986; Macleod 1995) but gained special prominence in the work of Bourdieu (1977), who argued that cultural information passed on informally from one generation to the next helps to perpetuate social stratification. Wealthy children inherit a substantially different body of cultural knowledge compared with working-class children, especially when the latter are members of a racial or ethnic minority. School systems are organized such that the cultural knowledge of middle-class whites is valorized and systematically rewarded, whereas the cultural capital possessed by lower-class minorities is not.

Academia, in particular, is a rarefied social niche with its own customs, traditions, and expectations. Exposure to and prior knowledge of the social conventions of academia can be critical in preparing students for achieving success in a school environment (Farkas 1996). This knowledge may be quite practical-such as knowing why, when, where, and how to study-or it may be more diffuse and loosely related to educational achievement-how to behave in certain social situations, familiarity with certain cultural symbols, knowledge of certain styles of music, food, and dress. The latter are basically shared understandings that enable students to "fit in," be comfortable, and feel like they "belong."


Excerpted from The Source of the River by Douglas S. Massey, Camille Z. Charles, Garvey F. Lundy, and Mary J. Fischer Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



CHAPTER ONE: The Puzzle of Minority Underachievement 1

CHAPTER TWO: Sample and Methodology 20

CHAPTER THREE: Family Origins 46

CHAPTER FOUR: Neighborhood Background 70

CHAPTER FIVE: Prior Educational Experiences 87

CHAPTER SIX: The Social World of High School 109

CHAPTER SEVEN: Racial Identity and Attitudes 133

CHAPTER EIGHT: Pathways to Preparation 155

CHAPTER NINE: Sink or Swim: The First Semester 184

CHAPTER TEN: Lessons Learned 197

Appendix A.Survey of College Life and Experience: First-Wave Instrument 209

Appendix B.Construction of Social Scales 251



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