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Top Student, Top School?

How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College

Most of us think that valedictorians can write their own ticket. By reaching the top of their class they have proven their merit, so their next logical step should be to attend the nation’s very best universities. Yet in Top Student, Top School?, Alexandria Walton Radford, of American Institutes for Research, reveals that many valedictorians do not enroll in prestigious institutions. Employing an original five-state study that surveyed nine hundred public high school valedictorians, she sets out to determine when and why valedictorians end up at less selective schools, showing that social class makes all the difference.
Radford traces valedictorians’ paths to college and presents damning evidence that high schools do not provide sufficient guidance on crucial factors affecting college selection, such as reputation, financial aid, and even the application process itself. Left in a bewildering environment of seemingly similar options, many students depend on their parents for assistance—and this allows social class to rear its head and have a profound impact on where students attend. Simply put, parents from less affluent backgrounds are far less informed about differences in colleges’ quality, the college application process, and financial aid options, which significantly limits their child’s chances of attending a competitive school, even when their child has already managed to become valedictorian.
Top Student, Top School? pinpoints an overlooked yet critical juncture in the education process, one that stands as a barrier to class mobility. By focusing solely on valedictorians, it shows that students’ paths diverge by social class even when they are similarly well-prepared academically, and this divergence is traceable to specific failures by society, failures that we can and should address.

Watch an interview of Alexandria Walton Radford discussing her book here:

296 pages | 1 halftone, 17 line drawings, 21 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Education: Higher Education, Pre-School, Elementary and Secondary Education

Sociology: Social Organization--Stratification, Mobility


“Radford has carefully documented an ongoing polarisation of privilege while putting forward pragmatic suggestions for improvement.”

Sandra Leaton Gray | Times Higher Education

“In the college admissions process, America’s brightest high school seniors compete on anything but a level playing field. In examining how valedictorians and their parents negotiate the six stages of the process—predisposition, preparation, exploration, application, admissions, and matriculation—higher education expert Radford (No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions) provides a wealth of data on the key role of ‘socioeconomic status’.”

Publishers Weekly

Top Student, Top School? is accessible, insightful, and clearly written. The story Radford tells is a disappointing one that highlights the intransigence of social class in shaping educational outcomes and the inadequacies of the college guidance that the high-achieving students in Radford’s study received from their high schools. It shines light on the mechanisms that sort even the highest-performing students into predictable paths based on their social class.”

Amanda Cox | Teachers College Record

“A valuable contribution to our knowledge on class inequalities in college destinations. While scholars have recognized that class affects educational transitions even when holding academic performance constant, to my knowledge no one has specifically examined how class affects academically elite students’ postsecondary transitions. Radford’s book starkly shows these effects exist and are large, informs us of how they happen, and points to ways policy makers can counteract them to increase the representation of high-achieving, low-SES students in selective colleges. Selective colleges in the United States have the mission of developing the talents of the most academically successful students, but Radford’s book demonstrates they are failing to fulfill it, making her findings all the more powerful and necessary.”

Joshua Klugman | American Journal of Sociology

“Ample research has shown that academic preparation is an important predictor of postsecondary enrollment and success as well as an important factor explaining the social class gap in college choices and outcomes. What Top Student, Top School? illuminates is the power of social class to influence pathways even for students who are academically prepared to pursue higher education—indeed who are prepared to enroll in educational institutions at the top of the hierarchy. It is a well-crafted and insightful study of the college-choice process and the role of social class in shaping educational decisions and postsecondary trajectories.”

Josipa Roksa, coauthor of Academically Adrift

Top Student, Top School? is an important, well-conceived, and well-written study. The topic addressed is of critical importance. Higher education is meant to facilitate social mobility, but a large body of research suggests it instead reproduces inequality. Here Alexandria Walton Radford gives us a much better understanding of the mechanisms that prevent higher education from achieving this central goal.”

Richard D. Kahlenberg, Century Foundation

“Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. The mixed methods evidence presented by Alexandria Walton Radford in Top Student, Top School? insightfully shows why this still may not be true in the United States. She demonstrates that even the most high-achieving and motivated students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds need a steady supply of accurate information and guidance about every step of the college destination process in order to make similar college choices as their peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Jessica Howell, College Board Advocacy & Policy Center

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