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  • The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America's Selective Colleges and Universities
  • Frances K. Stage
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. Fisher. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. 283 pp. ISBN 0691113262.

The purpose of this book was to redress the gap in knowledge regarding determinants of college success for racial and ethnic groups. The book flows naturally from William G. Bowen and Derek Bok's (1998) The Shape of the River and serves as a look upstream. Bowen and Bok sought to describe the diverse students who had been recruited to elite institutions in the decades following the civil rights movement. Massey, Charles, Lundy, and Fisher ask: Who are the students that Bowen and Bok described? Where did they come from? What were their characteristics? How did those characteristics shape their academic progress? To answer these questions, the authors conducted the National Longitudinal Study of Freshmen using nearly the same set of elite institutions (28 total) that were used by Bowen and Bok to complete their study. At regular intervals, Massey et al. measured the academic and social progress of those elite college students, measured the degree of social integration and intellectual engagement, and controlled for pre-existing background differences with respect to social, economic, and demographic characteristics. Equal size samples of White, Black, Asian American, and Latino first-year students entering these colleges and universities were taken first using face-to-face interviews and later telephone surveys, prior to arrival on campus, at the time of entry, and in the second half of the first year.

The authors lay the groundwork with an impeccable literature review on the possible explanations for minority underachievement. They categorize that broad array of literature into six overall theoretical topics: capital deficiency, oppositional culture, stereotype threat, peer influence, attachment theory, and critical theory. This chapter alone should be required reading for any doctoral student or scholar undertaking a study of college students of color. The authors next turn to the task of using their sample of elite students to evaluate the relevancy of the six theories of minority underachievement.

The methods are described with an impressive level of detail (chapter 2 and appendices A and B), so that one could easily replicate the study at another set of institutions, the logical next step from this study. The book presents us with the results organized according to the major factors of a typical causal model—"Family Origin" (chapter 3), "Neighborhood Background" (chapter 4), "Prior Educational Experiences" (chapter 5), "The Social World of High School" (chapter 6), "Racial Identity and Attitudes" (chapter 7), "Pathways to Preparation" [End Page 602] (chapter 8), and "Sink or Swim: The First Semester" (chapter 9). Results are summed up in "Lessons Learned" (chapter 10), which includes challenges and support for the six theoretical categories from chapter 2.

An interesting element of the book was the discussion of self-esteem. Students of color arrive at the elite institutions with higher levels of self-esteem than their White and Asian American counterparts. Perhaps, these students of color attending elite institutions require extraordinary confidence to apply and commit to attending, though they are less likely to be as successful meeting academic goals. On the other hand, an African American student who attends a historically Black college or university is more likely to survive the experience with self-esteem intact. Additionally, students of color who doubted their own abilities upon entering were more sensitive to the views of their teachers and earned lower GPAs than did other students of color, reinforcing research on stereotype threat (Steel & Aronson, 1995). This finding suggests the importance of messages, whether subtle or overt, that faculty send to students regarding their abilities, and it points to the importance of having role models of color as teachers in classrooms.

The high self-confidence and self-esteem for Black and Latino students could be viewed as an opportunity in the transition to college. Programs could be shaped to take advantage of the positive attitudes that Black and Latino students bring...


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pp. 602-604
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