The Mellon Foundation, which supplied the money for College and Beyond, has now served up a new treat: the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF), funded jointly by Mellon and the Atlantic Philanthropies to the tune of $3.5 million. The Source of the River, written by a team of scholars from the University of Pennsylvania, draws on the survey’s list of 959 Asians, 998 whites, 1,051 African Americans, and 916 Latinos who in the fall of 1999 enrolled at 28 selective colleges and universities, from Howard to Northwestern, Georgetown to Swarthmore.

And it appears just in time. As the University of Michigan affirmative action lawsuit comes before the Supreme Court, college admissions policy is once again one of the great flashpoints in American life. As the nation plunges into another soul-and-statistic-searching debate about whether and under what conditions affirmative action on campus can be justified, all sides in the dispute will be turning to data troves like the NLSF to build their arguments. This is scholarship of the first order, a study that will influence thinking about our society for the next generation. General readers of this book may be irked to discover that it contains only the first tentative results from what is likely to be a rich vein of information yielding several volumes. But specialists will love it. And those of us who like to sound smart in luncheon conversations will discover many intriguing statistical gems.

In future debates over how much of a preference to give minority college applicants, the NLSF will be able to shed light on a number of murky questions: Do black students ill prepared in ghetto schools learn more from the hard courses of selective colleges or is it better to let them go to colleges that don’t usually demand high SAT scores? Do minorities drop out of such colleges in higher proportions because they can’t handle the academics or because they don’t feel comfortable in the social scene? Do college programs that define students by their race improve their achievement, or is it better to treat them just like any other undergraduate?

This book is only a start in that long inquiry, but it shows the reader all the equipment it is taking along. The book’s appendix gives all 155 questions asked to the undergraduates, from the name and relationship of everyone in their household at age six (question 1), to their ratings of various ethnicities on an intelligence scale (question 77), to a request for a look at their college applications (question 155). Among a wealth of charts is one that points out that a higher percentage of Latinos and blacks than whites have swimming pools at their high schools, and another that shows that the same portion (28.5 percent) of blacks and Asians report that their best friends read a lot.

The authors also provide some intriguing hints as to where they are going with this, even though we must wait until later this year for anyone in this cohort to get through college, and much later to find out what their degrees do for them. The authors’ idea is to test the various explanations for the achievement gap in college between whites and Asians on one side and blacks and Latinos on the other. In this volume, they draw some interesting conclusions from their analysis of the attitudinal differences between the ethnic groups and their experiences in their first year of college.

Some favorite explanations for minority underachievement, like the bias against “acting white,” get a beating, and others, like the notion of “stereotype threat,” are endorsed. “We found no support whatsoever for the view that blacks and Latinos performed poorly because they felt that working hard and earning good grades would be a betrayal of their group identity,” the authors say. “We did find substantial support, however, for Claude Steele’s hypothesis of stereotype vulnerability–the disengagement from school work that stems from fears of living up to negative stereotypes of minority intellectual inferiority.”

The authors kept a close eye on those minority students–about 9 percent of the blacks and 7 percent of the Latinos–who had doubts about their own abilities and were self-conscious about the views of teachers, or who doubted their own ethnic group’s abilities. In their first term of college, those students “earned significantly lower grades and failed courses at much higher rates than other minority students,” the authors say.

This is like reading Harry Potter. You have to start with the first book to appreciate the wonders of the next few. So plunk down your $29.95 and get ready for an interesting trip.