- Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College by Alexandria Walton Radford
Alexandria Walton Radford
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013, 281 pages, $27.50 (softcover; e-book available)
In Top Student, Top School? Radford’s stated purpose is “to develop a better understanding of why postsecondary stratification by social class occurs even among our best students” (p. 12). Drawing on retrospective qualitative and quantitative data collected from public high school valedictorians (2003–2006 graduating classes) representing five states, the book details various structures, perspectives, understandings, information sources, behaviors, and decisions as these valedictorians navigated the “college destination” process.
The introductory chapter presents stories of three valedictorians, describes the study’s design and data, and provides convincing rationales for situating this study within literature on high-achieving students’ college decision-making. Starting in chapter one, Radford demonstrates that even when controlling for other variables, similarly high academic achievements and college preparedness does not offset the effects of socioeconomic status (SES) on students’ college destination processes or matriculation outcomes. With the exception of the “Preparation” chapter, the middle six chapters rely heavily on regression analyses incorporating three groups of respondents (low-, middle-, and high-SES), control variables (e.g., gender, race), and outcome indicators associated with each of the six steps. The concluding chapter integrates findings and presents implications for research and practice.
Radford fulfilled the book’s purpose admirably; findings, interpretations, and comparisons to related studies were clearly presented. To maximize narrative flow within and among chapters, a generous 40% of the book is devoted to supplemental material including endnotes and statistical analyses. Consequently the book is best read when one can move readily among the chapters, appendices, and notes, which is easy to do with the paperback. The e-book does not readily accommodate that strategy. On the other hand, e-book readers (in this case, a Kindle) can enlarge text and figures—most notably the chapter one figure depicting the six-step process. In the paperback version, teeny arrowheads make it impossible to follow the hypothesized secondary relationships among constructs.
The findings make valuable contributions to research. As examples, Radford illustrates how the exploration and application stages— not the latter admissions and acceptance stages—were crucial to increasing the likelihood of high-achieving, low-SES students attending elite colleges and universities. By the exploration stage if not earlier, low-SES students had generally ruled out private most-selective colleges because of location (far from home), perceived imbalances in the student experience (i.e., elite college students focusing exclusively on academics), and/or inadequate to no information about the availability of financial aid and scholarships to offset the sticker price.
Her research also focuses on students (valedictorians) from middle-SES backgrounds, a group that is sometimes overlooked in studies. For middle-SES students, sticker shock is paired with general understandings that their families would be expected to contribute (an as-yet-undetermined amount of) financial [End Page 752] support for their education. Consequently, lower-cost, less-selective colleges and universities—aka “safety schools” for high-SES valedictorians who received few to no price constraints from parents—were identified early on as more realistic and more feasible options among equally high-achieving middle-SES valedictorians.
While initial SES differences in academic achievement were negligible, students’ access to meaningful, timely information and advice from knowledgeable individuals differed greatly by SES, as did the resulting proportions of valedictorians from each SES group enrolled in highly selective colleges. To address these critical gaps, Radford recommends the federal government provide comparative information on net college costs and relative quality indicators among colleges to middle school students and parents. Along with many college choice researchers, she recommends focused training for school counselors and increased attention to college advising. Another strategy is her recommendation that selective colleges—most of which seek increased diversity in student enrollments—utilize current students and alumni to reach out to high-achieving students early on. Many colleges already use their alumni to conduct admissions interviews, but that is too late in the process...