New Book Looks at How Social Class Shapes College Decisions

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Many valedictorians from less affluent families don’t even apply to prestigious colleges and universities, according to a new book by Alexandria Walton Radford, Ph.D., associate program director in postsecondary education at RTI International.

The book, Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College, examines the factors that shape top performing students’ college choices, using public high school valedictorians as the surrogate.

"This book shows that even for top students who have done all the right things in school social class still has an impact," Radford said. "If even top students aren’t able to enroll in universities that match their academic ability, it really says something about our college guidance system in general. It shows that we really need to improve the way all students and families get information about making the transition from high school to college."

For the book, Radford conducted a five-state study and surveyed nine hundred public high school valedictorians. She found 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.

Without guidance from high schools, students rely on their families. And she found low-income parents are far less informed about differences in college quality, the college application process, and financial aid options, which significantly limits their student's chance of attending a competitive school.

"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," said Josipa Roksa, associate professor of Sociology and Education and co-author of Academically Adrift. "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."

Radford leads and manages quantitative and qualitative studies of postsecondary education and student transition to postsecondary education at RTI.

This is her second book. She also co-authored No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life,  which won the American Sociological Association’s 2011 Pierre Bourdieu Award for Best Book in the Sociology of Education.

Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College is published by University of Chicago Press and available at leading bookseller websites.