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SAN FRANCISCO -- Poverty influences where even valedictorians go to college, new research has found.

High schools generally fail to provide adequate college admissions guidance to top students, according to research by Alexandria Walton Radford, who directs studies on students’ transition to college for RTI International, a nonprofit research group. And lower-income valedictorians are more likely than their wealthier peers to be “undermatched” in less selective colleges.

Without good counseling, students must rely on themselves, their families and social networks when applying to colleges, said Radford, who presented her findings here this week at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting. And that can help reinforce social stratification in college admissions.

Poorer students remain underrepresented at America's top colleges, research has shown. And their academic preparation isn't the only reason, according to Radford's study of valedictorians, who should be considered well-prepared.

“Less-affluent valedictorians were less likely to know someone who had enrolled in a most selective institution and thus had a harder time envisioning their own attendance,” Radford wrote in a summary of her research.

The theme of the research association’s meeting this year was “Education and Poverty.” And Radford was among many who presented research on class inequity in higher education, which academics say remains deeply problematic at most colleges. Her study comes at a time of increased focus on how, despite plenty of outreach efforts, much of the talent at low-income high schools isn't getting recruited to top colleges.

Radford worked with data from the High School Valedictorian Project, a survey of 900 class valedictorians who graduated from public high schools between 2003 and 2006. She also drew from 55 in-depth interviews with the students. The University of Chicago Press soon will publish a book by Radford on her findings.

The valedictorians reported that the information high school guidance offices were provided on college admissions, financial aid and college choices was woefully lacking. Common descriptions included “pretty lousy” and “pretty incompetent,” Radford said.

That critique ranged across all family income levels. But the repercussions were more troubling for students from needier families, the research found.

Guidance offices tend to provide advice to large groups of students, Radford said. As a result, they focus on college options that are the most common. And that leads to a paradox where the top students actually get worse guidance than average ones.

In the absence of formal guidance from their high schools, needier students turn to who they know for help.

Among those surveyed, only 32 percent of valedictorians from lower socioeconomic backgrounds enrolled in private colleges described as being the most selective, compared to 51 percent of their wealthier peers. And 11 percent of the lower-income students enrolled in the most selective public institutions, compared to 21 percent of the wealthier group.

“Leaving college guidance to families instead of providing it to all students in school enables social class to have an unnecessarily strong influence on where students ultimately enroll,” wrote Radford.

Enrollment choices matter, she said, because studies show that students who go to top colleges generally fare better in higher education and in the job market.

"Because of the effect college destinations has on individuals’ socioeconomic futures," Radford wrote, "this system of entrusting college guidance to families allows the advantages (and disadvantages) of one generation to be passed on to the next generation."

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