A Quick Word With: Alexandria Walton Radford, on Postsecondary Education and College Admissions

Research shows that students who attend elite colleges are more likely to graduate, more likely to earn a graduate degree, and more likely to have higher earnings and achieve positions of prominence, whether in business or public life. The college admissions scandal that broke in March 2019 drew attention to the lengths that a few people allegedly were willing to go to cheat or bribe their children’s way into these elite colleges, and to the way elite colleges make decisions about who gets accepted. 

Alexandria Walton Radford, a managing researcher at AIR and director of a new center on postsecondary education, has studied postsecondary persistence and attainment and transitions into and out of postsecondary education for more than 15 years. She answered a few questions about the state of college admissions.

Q: The college admissions scandal involving celebrity and wealthy families has sparked a lot of discussion. Can you help us understand the larger issues, including socioeconomic diversity, within the current state of admissions?

"Elite colleges can’t just tweak their admissions policies. They need to do more outreach at the front end so that more underrepresented students make it into their applicant pools."

Radford: The important context to understand is the intense competition for admission to elite colleges. The affluent families involved in the scandal appear to have taken extreme measures, but it’s important to recognize that some of them took advantage of what’s already embedded in the admissions process at these elite colleges. Elite colleges have been giving a preference to recruited athletes for a long time. In a book I co-wrote, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, we found that athletic recruits had 16 times greater odds of being admitted at elite public colleges and two times greater odds of being admitted at elite private colleges than otherwise equally-qualified applicants.

At the same time, research shows that students from less affluent backgrounds are underrepresented at elite colleges. And this occurs even though there are many high-achieving, less affluent students who have the academic ability, and academic preparation, to thrive at these universities.

This raises a broader issue about who deserves to be at these elite colleges and how these colleges are defining merit. I would encourage colleges to revisit how their outreach activities and their prioritization of applicants with certain characteristics align with their mission.

Q: What can schools and districts do to better support students and their guidance counselors as they make decisions about postsecondary education?

Radford: In my book, Top Student, Top School?, focused on where high achievers go to college, I found that even though it’s natural for students to turn to their high schools for guidance on the next step in their education, students were not getting the information they needed about college costs and college options. As a result, they tended to have no choice but to rely on themselves, their families, or their social networks. And that allows social class to have a much bigger impact on where students attend than it otherwise would.

We all know that high school counselors are overburdened. They have huge student-to-counselor ratios, and they have a lot of responsibilities—college admissions being just one of them. Providing them with more resources, more staffing, and more professional development, as well as including teachers—since teachers can also help fill the gap and provide information to students—would go a long way.

Q: What do you think higher education institutions—particularly elite ones—can do to ensure they’re offering opportunities to a wider population of students?

Radford: One of the things I found in Top Student, Top School? is that high-achieving students from less affluent backgrounds didn’t end up at elite campuses at the same rates as more affluent high-achieving students because they were less likely to apply. When less affluent high achievers applied, getting admitted and enrolling were not barriers.

Elite colleges can’t just tweak their admissions policies. They need to do more outreach at the front end so that more underrepresented students make it into their applicant pools.

In particular, colleges need to get the word out regarding the true cost of attendance after financial aid. I found that less affluent students frequently were scared off by the sticker price of elite private colleges and did not even bother to investigate them. They often never learned it would have been cheaper for them to attend an elite college than a less selective college.

Elite colleges also need to mobilize their alumni networks to help less affluent students become more familiar with the benefits of attending these colleges and become more comfortable with the idea of enrolling. I found that more affluent students tended to know someone who had attended an elite college, which made them more open to the idea of applying. Less affluent students, on the other hand, tended not to have someone in their social network who had attended, which made them less likely even to explore elite colleges as an option.

Q: What can policymakers do to ensure more equitable access to higher education?

Radford: If the goal is that all Americans should have some amount of postsecondary training, we need to put more resources into helping students successfully transition from high school—and from the workforce—into higher education. Policymakers should provide more clarity and guidance around options. Students need better, more easily digestible information around academic requirements, career outcomes, and financial requirements and supports in order to make informed postsecondary decisions that can facilitate their success.

Q: You’re leading a center at AIR on postsecondary education. What is the purpose of the center, and what you hope to accomplish?

Walton Radford: We’ve started the Center for Applied Research in Postsecondary Education (CARPE) because AIR is doing a tremendous amount of research and work in postsecondary education. Not just on students’ transition into college or postsecondary education, but their paths through college and their outcomes after they’ve left. And what makes us unique is that we’ve approached this through a variety of lenses. There aren’t a lot of organizations with our technical assistance, research, policy, and evaluation expertise, and this gives us a unique perspective.

It’s important that we share what we’re learning with the entire field—higher education practitioners, researchers, and policymakers—so that we all can work together to transform and improve higher education.

Alexandria Radford headshot
Senior Director, Center for Applied Research in Postsecondary Education (CARPE)