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

Roger Brown hails an insightful study of scholastic performance and ethnicity on US campuses

May 6, 2010

The increasing relative underperformance of US higher education, and especially the variations in academic achievement and persistence between students from different ethnic and socio-economic groups, has recently spawned a plethora of scholarly studies. This book is one of the most important. Building on an earlier survey of freshmen in their first college term, Taming the River reports on the first- and second-year experiences of the same students who entered 28 selective institutions in 1999.

After an introductory chapter, chapter two looks at students' academic choices and achievements. As well as specific strategies for course selection - with Asian students, for example, tending to choose technical and quantitative subjects - the academic performances of Latino and black students were, by the end of the second (sophomore) year, already lagging behind those of whites and Asians. Chapter three finds similar differences in social engagement, with white students more likely to take part in social and communal activities, whereas black students were either working more or relaxing more. The fourth chapter confirms the findings of other studies about the widely varying financial demands on students. At these selective institutions, however, the issue is less minority access to aid than increasing dependence on loans and the time spent in coping with aid bureaucracy, which had a significant negative impact on grades in the sophomore year.

Chapters five and six look specifically at the impact of race and ethnicity on campus. Unlike other minorities, friendships among black students outnumber those between black and white students by more than two to one. Similarly, there is a greater preponderance of membership in white-dominant organisations among Asians and Latinos than among blacks. But whites and Asians are not the only ones policing the colour line: 17 per cent of black students reported being harassed by other black students for publicly associating with students from other groups.

Hitherto the main explanation for these differences has been held to lie in the racially (and socially) segregated nature of US society, together with the more violent and disorderly character of the districts from which many black and Latino students come. But chapter seven introduces a new and additional explanation - racial stereotyping.

Some minority students will have internalised negative views of their intellectual quality. Others will have externalised such stereotypes, believing that white and Asian students will draw on the stigma of intellectual inferiority when evaluating them. While internalisation leads to "disidentification" with academic success and a reduction of effort, externalisation yields a performance burden that lowers grades. Those most at risk of internalising racial stereotypes appear to be black and Latino males from affluent families who make few in-group friends while growing up and thus develop a weak racial/ethnic identity. Other work shows that those most prone to externalising stereotypes are black and Latino women from disrupted but well-educated backgrounds who grow up in integrated circumstances, but with a strong in-group identity and a high social distance from whites.

Finally, chapter eight considers the argument made by critics of affirmative action that minority students are set up for poor grades because it creates a gap between their abilities and those needed for success. The authors certainly find a risk that such action can undermine the grades earned by black and Latino students. This can happen both directly (a large test-score gap creates a stigmatising social context within which some black and Latino students find it harder to perform) and indirectly (a large test-score gap heightens the subjective performance burden experienced by minority students because of stereotype threat). But much depends on how affirmative actions are framed and applied.

Positive elements here include optimistic staff-student relationships in which lecturers communicate expectations of exceptional rather than poor performance; a stress on the expandability of intelligence through experience, training and effort; affirmation of minority students' belonging on campus and their acceptance as members of the scholarly community; and validation of multiple approaches and perspectives in addressing academic issues, which communicates the position that the campus is an environment where stereotypes are not used or welcomed. The authors comment that this should not present an insuperable obstacle: we already have effective affirmative actions for college athletes and alumni offspring in many colleges.

What messages are there for the UK? I picked out two. One is the importance of physical and social segregation, which persists long after students enrol (the Americans have racial segregation; we have socio-economic segregation).

The other is the duty of selective institutions, public and private, to try to deal with its effects. Selective universities and colleges may not be able to end racial segregation, discrimination or prejudice. But because they are training the next generation of leaders, they are in a better position than most institutions to make a good start. Taming the River gives them some good material with which to work.

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

By Camille Z. Charles, Mary J. Fischer, Margarita A. Mooney and Douglas S. Massey
Princeton University Press 320pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691139647
Published 13 May 2009

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