Douglas S. Massey

Woodrow Wilson School, Sociology

How are minority students faring at selective colleges? What factors contribute to their success — or to their failure?

When the Mellon Foundation approached sociologist Doug Massey with these questions, he knew what he needed to get the answers. He needed the numbers.

“There was a lot of talk in the field about the topic of minority students at selective colleges,” he recalls, “but there was little solid data. What we needed was a systematic base of information.”

So Massey launched the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, a comprehensive survey of white, black, Latino and Asian American freshmen. The study, which he later turned into a book, "The Source of the River," revealed some startling results. He found that black students’ experience of segregation and racial stereotypes had a huge impact on whether they would succeed academically. The findings are crucial, he says, for guiding colleges in the way they support minority students.

Accurate data is the foundation of Massey's work in sociology. He sees the effect his numbers have on campus in the way students begin to view race with new eyes. For example, in his course “Race and Public Policy,” offered through the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, he uses hard data to demonstrate how racial inequality is often institutionalized into the structure of society. “It's very eye-opening for students,” he says. “I keep to a factual basis; they see that they aren't simply getting my bias.”

This reliance on hard data is what originally drew Massey to demography, one of his core areas of interests. “As a senior in college, I liked the way demography seems to reflect the real world,” he says. “It allows you to draw conclusions.” From this interest in demography, he says, he worked his way into sociology.

Amassing the data is only half the job. “It's important to get the facts,” he explains, “but then you have to bring that information to bear on public policy.”

For Massey, that means publishing, giving talks, testifying before the Senate and giving briefings on Capitol Hill. For example, as the leader of the Mexican Migration Project, a long-term study of Mexican immigration patterns, he's worked closely with Senator Ted Kennedy’s staff on immigration-policy issues. Similarly, as a result of his work in urban planning, he's been able to influence fair-housing legislation.

Massey finds that it's the real-world impact that gives him the most satisfaction in his work, whether preparing students for life after graduation or contributing to a new piece of legislation. “I'm most proud of making a difference in people’s lives,” he says.