Top Student, Top School?: How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College

Top Student, Top School?: How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College

by Alexandria Walton Radford

Paperback(New Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Wednesday, October 24?   Order by 12:00 PM Eastern and choose Expedited Shipping at checkout.


Top Student, Top School?: How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College by Alexandria Walton Radford

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 RTI International, 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:

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226041001
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/27/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Alexandria Walton Radford is program director of transition to college at RTI International. She is coauthor of No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life

Read an Excerpt

Top Student, Top School?

How Social Class Shapes Where Top Valedictorians Go to College



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-04095-0




Three Valedictorians


By all measures, Karen was an excellent high school student. Valedictorian of her class, she also received a perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT. Yet Karen did not grow up in a family or community where such accomplishment was common. Her parents never went to college. Her older brother enlisted in the navy after high school. Most students from Karen's high school did not attend college, and her fellow honors students matriculated mainly at in-state public universities. Her high school peers found it "shocking" when a classmate enrolled in a most-selective private college in a different region of the country.

Karen's parents wanted her to go to college, but thought she would live at home and drive to the local public four-year university " 'cause it would be affordable." They made it clear to Karen that if she wanted to enroll elsewhere, she would have to earn a scholarship.

Around the start of high school, Karen began aspiring to attend a particular Ivy League college, one of "The Big Three" comprised of Harvard, Prince ton, and Yale. When asked how she identified that particular institution, Karen was not sure, but knew that she "wanted to be really smart." Still, this college was unfamiliar to her and those around her. At one point, when Karen told a community member of her plan to enroll in this institution and the listener asked her where it was located, Karen did not know.

As high school progressed, Karen's dream of attending this prestigious university began to wane. Enrolling in this type of institution was not encouraged in her home, her community, or her high school. Karen's parents did not see any additional benefit to attending a more-selective college. Instead, they viewed all universities as interchangeable because they all offered a college credential. Meanwhile, Karen started feeling pressure from her religious community to attend the local college affiliated with her church. Karen's high school guidance counselor might have provided another opinion, but she could not even remember Karen's name. Needless to say, personalized college advice that took into account Karen's accomplishments was not forthcoming from the counseling office.

College costs also became a contentious issue in the family. Karen's father was particularly outraged by the prices he saw for the private universities she was considering. During the only campus visit he made with his daughter, he stated simply: "You know you're not going to be able to [afford to] go here." He asked her repeatedly, "Why can't you go to a public school?" He did not know about the possibility of need-based financial aid, nor did he understand that given his family's financial circumstances, colleges would expect him to pay far less than the sticker price suggested.

The college admissions process was becoming a struggle, too. Karen had to ask her dad repeatedly: "I'm taking the SAT; will you give me the $25?" Then she found out that the Ivy League college she wanted to attend required paying for another round of tests—the SAT IIs—which were not required by the local Christian colleges she was beginning to consider.

Ultimately, Karen put aside her prestigious college aspirations. She did not even apply to the Ivy League institution she had long imagined attending. Instead, she matriculated at a small, regional, private Christian college with a full scholarship.

Nevertheless, Karen appeared to have lingering doubts about this decision. In the spring of her freshman year of college, she "somehow" found herself on the admissions website of what had been her dream school. Only then did she learn that her family's income would have allowed her to attend for free.


Paul, like Karen, was another high achiever. He graduated first in his class and scored in the high 700s on both the math and verbal sections of the SAT. But unlike Karen, Paul came from a middle-class family and community. His mother and father had attended the state's flagship university as well as a community college and eventually earned an RN and a bachelor's degree, respectively. Though some of Paul's high school friends joined the military or took jobs in factories, most continued their schooling, attending either community colleges or public four-year universities around the state. Few graduates of his high school attended a private or out-of-state institution.

Early in his college search, Paul's parents told him that they could not afford to send him to a private college. They said, "We're sorry. Maybe you'd get in there, but we can't afford to have you go there." And so private colleges were "thrown right out, right in the beginning" and not explored further. To try to help with college costs, Paul applied for merit scholarships. His parents told him they did not think they would qualify for need-based financial aid, but to Paul's knowledge, they never explored the possibility or applied.

Paul's parents worked with him to try to identify possible college options, but the whole family found the process challenging. Paul had decided he wanted to study medicine, but since "there were no doctors in the family," they "had no idea of where to look." Paul turned to classmates for help, but they too were unsure of which institutions and college characteristics to consider. His high school guidance counselors did not know about out-of-state universities. If they provided any guidance, it was to steer students toward the in-state schools with which counselors were most familiar. Paul started to focus on Big Ten schools because "they had more—both academics and fun stuff." He also thought that medical school admissions officers would have heard of Big Ten schools, but might not know about smaller colleges.

In the end, Paul applied to three public universities: two in his state and one in a neighboring state. He applied to the third—a less-selective Big Ten school—on a whim, filling out the application the day it was due because a couple of his friends were applying. This out-of-state institution offered Paul a full scholarship and he enrolled.


Our third valedictorian, Elizabeth, also excelled on the SATs, receiving a perfect score on the math section. In Elizabeth's family and community, however, such achievement was not particularly surprising. Elizabeth's parents had both attended prestigious private undergraduate and graduate institutions. Her older sister was enrolled in a highly selective liberal arts college. Elizabeth estimated that 99 percent of students from her prosperous suburban town's high school went on to attend college, and most students in the honors track scattered to prominent four-year private universities in the Northeast.

From the beginning of her college search, Elizabeth's parents were explicit that college costs should not influence her choice. She would not have had to pay tuition if she attended the private, not particularly selective institution where her dad worked, but her parents only "jokingly" suggested she consider it. Due to her academic credentials, Elizabeth was also guaranteed a certain amount of money if she attended the public flagship in her state. She did not apply to either of these less expensive options.

Elizabeth's family was also highly involved in her exploration of college options. Her father "fleshed out the concept" that Elizabeth should go to a university, but a "smaller one ... that had a lot of opportunities." Her mother gave her lists of colleges that were prominent in Elizabeth's planned major and that were "just top schools in general." Her mother also organized trips so Elizabeth could visit colleges that interested her. And when Elizabeth was not "thrilled" by the prestigious private college in her state, the family simply investigated more distant colleges because Elizabeth and her family wanted her to attend a "top school."

In the end, Elizabeth applied to nine colleges, all of them private and eight of them most selective. She ultimately enrolled in a most-selective private college multiple states from home.

How Representative Are These Stories?

Karen, Paul, and Elizabeth are equal in many ways. All three are valedictorians of their high school classes and have worked hard to earn this title. They all have also taken Advanced Placement (AP) courses and performed well on standardized tests. Yet in the end, only Elizabeth—the student from the more-affluent family—enrolled in a top college.

These social class stories play out every year throughout the country, ultimately producing the national enrollment statistics observed. They repeatedly show that more-affluent students are much more highly represented at America's most prominent colleges than students who are less affluent. Consider these findings:

• Only 3 percent of students at the 146 most-selective public and private colleges in America are from the bottom socioeconomic quartile (Carnevale and Rose, 2004).

• Just 10 percent of students attending one of U.S. News & World Report's top thirty public and private universities are from families with incomes of less than $30,000 (Pallais and Turner, 2006).

• Sixty-seven percent of entering freshmen at the country's 193 most-selective colleges come from the top income quartile. Twelve percent come from the second quartile and only 15 percent come from the bottom two (Leonhardt, 2011).

• At the prestigious public University of Michigan, more freshmen come from families with an annual income of $200,000 or more than from families with an annual income below the national median of $53,000 (Leonhardt, 2004).

Although some might believe that these enrollment patterns are the result of more-affluent students being better academically prepared, preparation differences by social class are unable to fully account for this phenomenon.

First, while data do show that less-affluent students are not as likely as more-affluent students to exhibit the high levels of academic preparation expected of elite college matriculants, there are many more students from less privileged backgrounds, like Karen and Paul, who have the ability to succeed at our nation's top institutions but do not attend (Hill and Winston, 2006b; Pallais and Turner, 2006). About 16 percent of students scoring in roughly the top decile of all SAT and ACT test takers are from the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution (Hill and Winston, 2006b). This finding suggests that top institutions could increase the proportion of less-affluent students in their student bodies to at least this percentage without affecting the quality of matriculants enrolled. A more encompassing, holistic review of students' abilities that considers grades, curriculum rigor, class rank, other test scores, and even essays and letters of recommendation is likely to identify an even greater percentage of promising students from less-affluent families who could thrive at America's best universities.

Second, even when students are similarly well prepared, their college destinations diverge by social class. One study found that 55 percent of upper-income students with combined math and verbal SAT scores of 1300 or above enrolled in a private, elite, Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) institution compared with 30 to 39 percent of upper-middle-, middle-, lower-middle-, and lower-income students with scores in the same range (McPherson and Schapiro, 1991). A more recent analysis of students who were determined to possess the academic preparation necessary to attend a selective institution revealed that 73 percent of those in the top income quartile ultimately enrolled in such a college compared with 58, 46, and 41 percent of those in the second, third, and fourth income quartiles, respectively (Haycock, Lynch, and Engle, 2010).

This phenomenon in which students attend a less-selective college than they are qualified to attend is known as undermatching, and the evidence suggests it occurs frequently among our very brightest students—like Karen and Paul (Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson, 2009; Roderick et al., 2008, 2009). More than half of all Chicago public high school students enrolled in the system's most challenging academic programs undermatched, with more than one-third attending a two-year college or no college at all (Roderick et al., 2009).

Does Where One Attends College Even Matter?

Even when confronted with this socioeconomic status (SES) disparity among students with similar levels of preparation, some may question whether the type of college that students attend matters. Such individuals might posit, for example, that a degree from "Big State University" is just as good as one from an Ivy League school.

The research we have suggests otherwise; undergraduate alma mater is consistently found to affect later life outcomes. In fact, the benefits of attending a selective institution have been growing rather than decreasing (Brewer, Eide, and Ehrenberg, 1999; Hoxby, 2001). Bowen (1997) explains that as an increasing number of Americans go to college and become college educated—like they have in recent de cades (Aud, Kewal-Ramani, and Frohlich, 2011)—it becomes more important for college graduates to distinguish themselves from others. Americans could try to use graduate school to stand out from the growing quantity of bachelor's degree recipients, but earning a greater number of advanced degrees has diminishing returns. Instead, the relevant credential becomes not the quantity of degrees possessed, but the caliber of the institutions attended.

One of the most important ways that an undergraduate institution affects subsequent outcomes is in educational attainment. Students who attend more-selective colleges are more likely to receive their bachelor's degrees than students who enroll in less-selective colleges, even controlling for ability and other factors (Bowen and Bok, 1998; Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson, 2009; Carnevale and Rose, 2004; Carnevale and Strohl, 2010; Cohodes and Goodman, 2012; Kane, 1998; Long, 2008; Melguizo, 2008, 2010). In addition, graduates of more-selective colleges are also more likely to obtain further education by pursuing graduate degrees (Alexander and Eckland, 1977; Bowen and Bok, 1998; Carnevale and Rose, 2004; Carnevale and Strohl, 2010; Zhang, 2005a).

Emerging research on the consequences of undermatching yields similar conclusions. Students who enroll in a college that is less selective than their academic preparation warrants are less likely to complete an undergraduate degree (Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson, 2009; Carnevale and Strohl, 2010; Nagaoka, Roderick, and Coca, 2009) or pursue a graduate degree (Carnevale and Strohl, 2010).

Research also links attending a more-selective college to greater earnings. Alumni of more-prominent universities earn larger salaries in part because they are more likely to have additional years of education. But even when matched by years of schooling (as well as other characteristics), investigation after investigation indicates that on average, graduates of elite colleges enjoy higher incomes than graduates of less-elite schools (Andrews, Li, and Lovenheim, 2012; Arnold, 2002; Arnold and Youn, 2006; Behrman, Rosenzweig, and Taubman, 1996; Black and Smith, 2006; Bowen and Bok, 1998; Brand and Halaby, 2006; Brewer, Eide, and Ehrenberg, 1999; Carnevale and Strohl, 2010; Daniel, Black, and Smith, 1997; Fitzgerald, 2000; Hershbein, 2011; Long, 2008; Loury and Garman, 1995; Monks, 2000; Solmon, 1975; Thomas and Zhang, 2005; Zhang, 2005b). While there are a few who question some of these studies' methods (Dale and Krueger, 2002, 2011; Gerber and Cheung, 2008), even skeptics find that at the very least, low-SES students earn more when they enroll in more-selective institutions (Dale and Krueger, 2002, 2011).

There is also evidence suggesting that selective college attendance and occupational prestige and power are related (Arnold, 2002; Arnold and Youn, 2006; Smart, 1986). President George H. W. Bush and the three U.S. presidents who have followed hold undergraduate degrees from Yale, Georgetown, Yale, and Columbia, respectively. The current Supreme Court justices' undergraduate alma maters include: Prince ton (three), Stanford (two), Harvard (one), Cornell (one), Georgetown (one), and Holy Cross (one). Prestigious colleges are also well represented in the upper echelons of business. The chief executives of General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Wal-Mart, and Google attended Dartmouth, Harvard, Georgia Tech, and the University of Michigan, respectively (Leonhardt, 2011). Top companies often concentrate their recruitment efforts at elite colleges, believing these institutions are more likely to yield them the type of employees that best fit their business needs (Hansen, 2006).

Does College Selectivity Matter for Students Who Are Already Top Performers?

While the overwhelming body of research indicates that selectivity of undergraduate institution attended affects the outcomes of students at large, some might wonder if it influences top students' paths. Does it make any difference in the end that Karen went to a small, regional Christian college and Paul enrolled in a less-selective Big Ten school while Elizabeth matriculated at a most-selective private college? A planned follow-up study of valedictorians' undergraduate attainment, graduate school enrollment, and labor market outcomes will be able to address this question specifically. Until then, however, the evidence currently available suggests that selectivity of undergraduate alma mater on average does shape even our most talented students' trajectories.

To begin, top students' undergraduate attainment differs by institution attended. Bowen and Bok (1998: 380) found that white students entering college in 1989 with SAT scores of 1300 or above were 11 percentage points more likely to graduate if they had enrolled in an institution that fell in the study's top selectivity tier rather than its third selectivity tier. Using another dataset, Carnevale and Strohl (2010: 151) reported that students of all races with similarly high SAT scores were 10 percentage points more likely to graduate if they had attended a university in the study's most competitive tier of institutions rather than the study's third tier of institutions. It is also important to stress that in both analyses there was no evidence that gaps in graduation rates by institutional selectivity were less pronounced for high-performing than for low-performing students. Instead, the percentage point difference in graduation rates by institutional selectivity tended to be greater among top students, suggesting that selectivity of college attended may have a greater impact on top students than on students at large.

Excerpted from Top Student, Top School? by ALEXANDRIA WALTON RADFORD. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures ix

Chapter 1 Introduction: Three Valedictorians 1

Chapter 2 Predisposition: Setting the Course 23

Chapter 3 Preparation: Paving the Way 36

Chapter 4 Exploration: Investigating College 54

Chapter 5 Application: Choosing Potential Destinations 95

Chapter 6 Admissions: Gaining Permission to Enter 114

Chapter 7 Matriculation: Selecting among Offers of Admission 123

Chapter 8 Integrating It All: College Destinations and the Paths That Lead to Them 141

Appendix A List of Most-Selective Colleges 165

Appendix B The High School Valedictorian Project Social Class Variable 167

Appendix C Quantitative Data Collection 171

Appendix D The High School Valedictorian Project Web Survey 175

Appendix E The High School Valedictorian Project Interview Schedule 199

Appendix F Regression Tables 203

Notes 221

References 249

Acknowledgments 273

Index 275

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews