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Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities

reviewed by Stanley Katz - August 10, 2009

coverTitle: Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities
Author(s): Camille Z. Charles, Mary J. Fischer, Margarita A. Mooney, and Douglas S. Massey
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691139644, Pages: 320, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

Taming the River, by Camille Z. Charles, Mary J. Fischer, Margarita A. Mooney, and Douglas S. Massey, is fascinating and important for anyone who cares about managing diversity in higher education. It is an entirely data driven book, and this is both its strength and weakness. It is a strength because the authors have good evidence on which to base their highly sophisticated social science analysis. It is a weakness since the data relate to a fairly small sample of highly selective colleges and universities, thus limiting the degree to which we can generalize across higher education on the basis of its findings. The dataset began with Bill Bowen and Derek Bok’s “College and Beyond Survey” of 1979 and 1989 cohorts of freshmen, long after the students in the sample had graduated, at a small number of selective institutions. But these data have now been enhanced by a new survey, the “National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen,” which collected information on incoming students at twenty-eight selective institutions in the fall of 1999, and then again in each of the following four years.

The book under review adopts the “river” metaphor employed by Bowen and Bok in The Shape of the River (1998), as did its predecessor Massey et al. volume of 2003, The Source of the River– the “source” being the social origins of the student cohort, and the “river” being the flow of students in the cohort. Taming the River evaluates student achievement and adjustment over the first two years of the undergraduate experience. It is a complex statistical analysis (disclosure: I am not competent to critique the methodology) that arrives at very strong conclusions and equally strong policy recommendations. I confess that I am tired of the river metaphor, but the analysis does not depend upon it, and the book is fascinating.

The authors, following on the Bowen-Bok analysis, found that:

the typical white or Asian student grew up in an intact family and attended a resource-rich suburban or private school; both parents were college graduates; most fathers held an advanced degree and worked at a professional or managerial job; a large plurality of mothers also held advanced degrees, and most also worked in a white-collar occupation, thus yielding a family income high enough to enable ownership of a valuable home. (pp. 4-5)  

In contrast, black and Latino students had quite diverse socio-economic backgrounds. There were differences, though, especially in the African-American group – women were greatly over-represented, as were immigrants (and the children of immigrants), and (especially) so were bi-racial children. From this perspective, it should not surprise us that Barrack Obama is the first “black” president of the United States. The black and Latino students had in common that they grew up “under conditions of high segregation,” and that they tended to be tied through location and parentage to troubled home situations – importantly, they brought these continuing problems along with them to college. Charles and her colleagues emphasize the role of “stereotype threat” for these black and Latino students. This notion (originally formulated by Claude Steele) proposes that “members of disparaged minority groups are prone to underperform academically because of a fear of living up to negative stereotypes about the intellectual abilities of their group” (p. 173).

Taming the River considers a rich trove of data concerning the struggles (their attempts to “stay afloat”) of black and Latino undergraduates with respect to earning good grades and accumulating course credits, maintaining financial stability, achieving social integration, and coping with stereotyping and affirmative action. What will primarily interest readers of this journal are the authors’ interpretations of the data in each of these struggles. These are too complex for summary in a brief book review, but the authors’ general conclusions are helpfully summed up in a final chapter, “College at Midstream.” The bottom line is the argument that adjustment to college is difficult for all students, but that for peculiarly disadvantaged groups of students “pressures are generally more intense . . . and the greater severity of these ‘normal’ challenges partly explains the lower performance of African Americans and Latinos relative to whites and Asians” (p. 205). The minority groups, moreover, face “unique” challenges such as stereotype threats and the “burden from affirmative action programs” (p. 206). The authors’ view of affirmative action is particularly important, and they devote an entire chapter to it (“The Wake from Affirmative Action”). Their argument is that there is little evidence of harm to individual minorities from affirmative action, but that there is a measurable institutional impact: “The greater the discrepancy in SAT scores between minority students and others on a particular campus, the lower the grades earned by individual black and Latino students on the same campus” (p. 199). The reason is that:

Any institutional policy that, however inadvertently, highlights the poorer performance of minority students on a very visible and widely discussed benchmark of academic qualification stands a good chance of exacerbating, however unintentionally, the performance burden experienced by black and Latino students because of stereotype threat and stigmatizing group members as people whose academic qualifications are indeed suspect. (p. 201)

There are, however, strategies that universities can implement to mitigate the negative impact of affirmative action, among them better student-faculty relations, “an emphasis on challenge rather than remediation in learning,” and an affirmative attitude toward minority students belonging on campus (pp. 201-202). I suspect, however, that it will not be easy to institutionalize such strategies, even in well-heeled selective colleges.

The discouraging fact revealed in Taming is that at the end of their sophomore year, blacks and Latino student GPAs still lag in about the same proportion as when these students entered college – whites and Asians score almost identically (3.35 and 3.34), followed by Latinos (3.13) and blacks (3.00).  The authors point out that “given the black students’ higher aspirations for graduate and professional education compared with whites, the relative deficit in grade performance represents potentially a more serious problem for them . . .” (p. 208). The data show that

. . . the profile of a student who is struggling academically is that of a male neither of whose parents went to college, who earned low grades in high school, scored poorly on the SAT, has low esteem, and feels unprepared for college. (p. 216)  

Further, such students’ grades are not:

attributable to race or ethnicity per se, but more to greater family stress and depressed cognitive skills linked to a segregated upbringing, along with great psychological burdens associated with stereotype threat, which is exacerbated by the way his institution administers its affirmative action policies. (p. 216)  

None of this should surprise experienced educators, but it certainly reminds us of the bad news that the accident of birth confers much heavier burdens on some college students than it does on others -- the birth lottery shapes the educational outcomes of young people just as their gene pool shapes their health outcomes.

The good news, however, is that such data indicate that both academic policies and the arrangement of social circumstances on campus actually matter to academic outcomes and student satisfaction. Students benefit, for instance, from living on campus in well-managed dormitories (but not in fraternity or sorority houses). Indeed Charles and her co-authors believe that “student satisfaction with college is more a social than an academic process,” and a good thing this is, since “being blessed with highly educated parents . . . confers a large scholastic advantage in the competition for grades” (pp. 224-225). This leads to the authors’ distinction (p. 226) between “a mostly social process of persistence” and “a mostly academic process of achievement” in a situation in which final success depends both on achievement and persistence – students who drop out do not get degrees (at least not from the institutions they have left). That means that colleges and universities need different policies to address minority difficulties of academic underperformance and dropping out. As to the latter, “student retention should be seen as more a social than an academic issue” and careful management of the social ethos and structure of the college is crucial (p. 227).  

The authors have recommendations ranging from admissions policies to the management of affirmative action programs – it seems as if the social environment may be more easily managed than the academic.  As to which, the challenge is to recognize the variety of talents students bring to college, and “to harness those talents and abilities and to communicate to students that intelligence is not a fixed quantity that one carries for life, but a resource that can be built incrementally through individual initiative, effort, and hard work” (p. 234). This is clearly sensible advice, of the sort that Jerome Bruner and Howard Gardner have been giving for decades now, but in any given institution it will be much more easily said than done. Nevertheless, this fine book is based on a remarkably valuable body of data, interpreted by authors with a very high standard of sociological and social psychological understanding.  

University faculty and administrators who are concerned about the achievement and satisfaction of black and Latino students on their campuses, especially if they have selective student bodies, would do well to ponder these interpretations to ask if they cannot do better by their students. We cannot give our minority students a better place in the lottery of life, but we can clearly do much better in enabling them to make the most of the place they have been given. Everyone who cares ought to be very grateful to the authors for a truly important piece of work.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 10, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15747, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 6:08:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Stanley Katz
    Princeton University
    E-mail Author
    STANLEY KATZ is a lecturer with rank of Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. He is a scholar of legal and constitutional history who frequently comments on higher education policy, and is a brainstorm blogger on higher ed policy for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
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