Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book: Top Student, Top School

Radford, Alexandria. 2013. Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go To College. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I liked this book a lot, and not just because the evidence it presents supports various conclusions in my work on college mismatch with Nora Dillon (e.g. that for some students, distance to college is an important variable, either because they want to save money by living at home, or because they want to be able to return home regularly and easily, and that student application behavior matters more than what college admissions offices do).

The book provides qualitative and quantitative analysis of a cohort of high school valedictorians who vary on a number of relevant dimensions such as sex, high school quality, and parental education. The relative roles of these and other variables are traced through a set of stages - predisposition, preparation, exploration, application, admissions and matriculation - in the process of transitioning from high school to college. The author does a nice job of combining straightforward quantitative analysis with insightful qualitative analysis. Indeed, one might even use this book as an example of integrating the two.

Even the policy section, which often provides a letdown at the end of otherwise sound books by non-economists, is not too bad. We could, and should, do a better job of informing strong students from low income backgrounds and/or who are first generation college-goers how the system works. This is, of course, an active area of research in the economics of education. One potentially instructive comparison would be to places, e.g. Ontario, where the choice problem is substantially easier for all students, due to centralized application and admissions and the absence of private colleges.

Recommended for those interested in the topic.

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