Marta Tienda with her dog

5 Questions with Marta Tienda

By Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications

Marta Tienda, the Maurice P. During Professor in Demographic Studies and professor of sociology and public affairs, sees life stories in numbers. Numbers are the tools she uses to uncover fascinating information about people and their behavior.

Marta Tienda with father and sister
Marta Tienda with her father and older sister Maggie in Detroit shortly after moving from Texas to Michigan.

As the daughter of Mexican migrant laborers, Tienda understands the pain of growing up poor. When her family had to pick crops to earn money, she saw firsthand the tough conditions that migrant workers had to endure. It was only when her seventh-grade English teacher asked her if she wanted to go to college that Tienda first imagined the possibilities of higher education. She earned her bachelor’s in Spanish from Michigan State University and her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas-Austin.

Her research and teaching focus on understanding the issues of immigration, population diversification and poverty and the roles they play in terms of access to education and social mobility. She has devoted much of her career to various aspects of social stratification, with a focus on higher education since joining the Princeton faculty.

Marta Tienda with President George W. Bush
Tienda received an honorary degree from Ohio State University in 2003; President George W. Bush was the commencement speaker.

In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed Tienda to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. In 2015, she was elected as a member of the National Academy of Education for her outstanding scholarship related to education.

She is co-author and co-editor of several books, including “The Hispanic Population of the United States,” “Divided Opportunities,” “The Color of Opportunity,” “Youth in Cities,” “Ethnicity and Causal Mechanisms,” “Multiple Origins, Uncertain Destinies,” “Hispanics and the Future of America” and “Africa on the Move.”

Her life story is captured in “People Person: The Story of Sociologist Marta Tienda,” the young adult nonfiction series on women in science published by the National Academies of Science. Read a Princeton Alumni Weekly profile of Tienda, in which she reflects on affirmative action and how the changing demographics in the United States are affecting the student population at colleges and universities. Read an Office of Admission blog post, in which she expresses her joy of teaching and inspiring first-gen students.

What keeps you up at night?  

I worry about the shortsightedness of our politicians and their seeming inability to learn from our past successes and failures. During economic downturns, like the 2008-09 Great Recession, states and localities use public education as a budget balance wheel. It has taken many districts over a decade to restore funding to pre-2008 levels in real terms, and the pandemic will likely result in cuts once again.

Underfunding public education is very shortsighted policy with long-term consequences that transcend political careers and demand little to no accountability. Right now, I am deeply concerned about unequal learning loss due to inadequate digital infrastructure to support virtual instruction during the pandemic. Research about the magnitude and dimensions of learning loss is clear; less certain is whether the new administration can muster the political support to do right by our most vulnerable youth. I remain hopeful.

Marta Tienda wearing mortarboard
Tienda earned her bachelor’s in Spanish from Michigan State University, and is pictured at her 1971 induction into MSU’s chapter of Mortar Board, a national honor society based on scholarship, leadership and service.

Who or what inspired you to work in this field? 

Serendipity has always been on my side, but that is a longer story. It is fair to say that the demography of inequality is an overarching theme of my research, but it was former Princeton President William Bowen who directed my attention to higher education.

As president of the Mellon Foundation at the time, he was enlisting researchers to address research gaps that might serve impending affirmative action litigation. He invited me to evaluate how Latinos were faring at selective institutions: Who enrolled? Where? And did they succeed? Initially I was reluctant because the focus on selective institutions seemed rather narrow for a group overrepresented among high school dropouts. I recall him saying, “Think about it.” Good advice! I realized that way too much research about Latinos focused on deficits and failure, rather than the more productive question “Who beats the odds and why?” In fact, that became the title of my first project about equity and access to higher education. The rest, as they say, is history.

What excites you most about your research/scholarship?

Research is a cumulative process and learning a lifelong expedition. Academics have the freedom to re-invent themselves, and I have enjoyed the privilege and flexibility to satisfy my curiosity. To be sure, I have done my share of empirical research that generates new evidence about specific questions. But at this point in my career, I have the luxury of reflecting on larger questions like: What must be equal for opportunity to be equal? And, short of a Constitutional amendment, what will it take to make publication education a fundamental right? During the 2021-22 academic year, I will be delivering several public lectures as a Phi Beta Scholar and I plan to focus themes that create conditions for equal educational opportunity and the economic implications of demographic change. 

How do you hope that your work will help create a better future?

That is the question my late spouse asked when I boasted that a chapter from my dissertation was accepted for publication. Not all research is policy relevant, but much social science research is. As I transition to retirement, I plan to use my voice to influence educational policy and practice in any way possible.

I will use my biography — lived experience — to contrast what is now and what was during the period when the nation expanded access to public higher education by investing in infrastructure, R&D and tuition grants like the G.I. bill. And I will use my time and energy in the service of think tanks and organizations like the Urban Institute and the Holdsworth Center for Educational Excellence, whose missions involve using social science evidence for informed policy making.

What does “forward thinking” mean to you?

A world where every child, irrespective of origins or zip code, has a genuine opportunity to realize their full potential, and where prosperity is broadly shared. I don’t mean this to sound pollyannish — as a nation, we owe our youth the same opportunities to succeed that my generation enjoyed. Oh, and NO child should go to be hungry in the wealthiest nation on the planet.


Top: Tienda is pictured with her dog, a Maltese named Malita, and a fixture at Tienda’s office in Wallace Hall. Tienda said that before the pandemic, Malita was a favorite among building services and campus security, who would come visit her, as well as with students who liked to visit her when they passed Tienda's office — missing their own pets.