Alexandria Walton Radford

Alexandria Walton Radford, Phd. is the center director for RTI International’s workforce development unit and RTI’s post-secondary education program in Washington D.C. Her journey through post-secondary education began at Georgetown University, where she received a BA in foreign service (2002). Radford then attended graduate school and earned a MA (2006) and PhD (2009) in sociology from Princeton University. She examines sociological aspects of the US education system and reports the findings of her research in her two books, articles, interviews, and other publications. The experience she has in prestigious, well ranked universities puts Radford in the optimal position to question and potentially prompt change within the educational system (RTI.) 

Alexandria Walton Radford

In an interview with NPR in September of 2018, Alexandria W. Radford breaks down the demographic of college students and describes the average present day college student as, surprisingly, nontraditional. Her assessment of the average present day college student is backed by information provided by the National Center for Educational Statistics. Radford gathers substantial amounts of evidence to raise awareness of misconceptions about college students (they are financially dependent with no dependents of their own, attend college immediately following high school, etc.) that American culture perpetuates (Nadworny.)

Radford’s most recent book, Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College, published in 2013, explains the limitations of being a scholar of a lower socio-economic class. This book associates aspects of the K-12 US public school system (counseling, advisement, etc.) that could contribute to the difference of universities applied to by valedictorians of different classes. She reports that students with more assistance in paring for the college application process are more likely to appear to be a more competitive candidate. Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College exhibits Radford’s well-rounded understanding of all tiers of American schooling. 

In 2009, Radford and her co-author, Thomas J. Espenshade, published No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions and Campus Life – perhaps Radford’s most important work with regards to the conversation about higher education. Radford draws contrast between what is perceived versus the stark reality of the state of higher ed. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal is tantamount to a cesspool of data about post-secondary institutional recruitment. Naturally, as a sociologist, Radford’s primary purpose is to give a detailed account of how factors like race or class influence students’ experience of college.

In a review of No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Shamus Rahman Khan explains that the authors organize the book in a manner that explicates: the role of higher education in stimulating class mobility, the effectiveness of affirmative action in its current state, as well as the comparative academic performance of low-income students (Khan).

The title’s reference to the separate but equal clause reveals the intent of debunking the notion that American higher education is no longer inherently racist. During Radford and Espenshade’s research, the National Study of College Experience (NSCE) was created, which is essentially a collection of college students profiles from the 80s and 90s provided to them by several different post-secondary institutions. These profiles include information from applications, designated financial aid, and surveys about their personal experience in college. Radford and Espenshade somewhat criticize the effectiveness of affirmative action when dictated solely by race. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal speak to raise awareness of hard-to-swallow truths of the American education system. For instance, Radford found that, among the 146 most competitive four-year universities, “74 percent of students come from the top quarter of the socioeconomic distribution,” (Espenshade; Radford 348.) Her book questions if an alternative procedure for affirmative action (that is more mindful of class in a climate where economic inequality continues to grow) should be implemented alongside racial affirmative action.

Radford does not fall short of addressing the non-quantitative benefits reaped by students who attend institutions that foster relationships among diverse peers. These benefits, long understood and mentioned by scholars of education like Andrew Delbanco, who wrote College, What It Was, Is, and Should Be, include preparing students to succeed as global citizens in an increasingly globalized economy, promoting empathy towards external demographics, and more. In an environment where, “interracial associations,” are common, students would be, “twice as likely to indicate they learned, ‘a lot’,” (Espenshade; Radford 387.) Radford and Espenshade strengthen the rhetoric of No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal by stressing that affirmative action, which effectively prevents the reproduction of economic inequality, simultaneously encourages learning outside the classroom setting.

Radford and Espenshade do not leave readers hanging with no solutions that could bridge the gap of inequality still prevalent in higher education. In the final chapter of No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Radford addresses the negative effects elite institutions maintain, such as, “perpetuating intergenerational inequality,” stifling the diversity of social circles, and creating an atmosphere where certain demographics are less prone to (academically) succeed (Espenshade; Radford 378.) As post-secondary education is transformed, the American dream has become increasingly less likely to be achieved. During a time when our nation’s wealth is so concentrated within the top 1%, elite institutions are being justly scrutinized for their lack of contribution in providing honest opportunity to all walks of life by scholars of higher education like Andrew Delbanco and Alexandria Radford. The compelling evidence presented by Radford and Espenshade debunks the myth that admitting more low-income students has an externality of lessening the academic competitiveness of that elite institutions. In 2011, Radford and Espenshade were deservingly presented with the 2011 Pierre Bourdieu book award for best book in the sociology of education. The merit and importance of Alexandria Radford’s work is undeniable, as she aims to rid the reader’s mind of unsubstantiated objections towards achieving what she calls, “socioeconomic neutrality,” and sheds light upon issues with post-secondary education that are not being appropriately confronted (Espenshade; Radford 384.)

Fascinatingly, although Radford attended an Ivy league school, so much of her research focuses on how distinguished and renowned institutions, not unlike the one she attended, still possesses traces of the classist and racist principles on which they were founded upon. Radford’s list of accomplishments is quite extensive for a person as young as she, and her record of devotion to the sociological study of higher education suggests that the value of her input in the conversation will only grow. Radford’s pursuance of a progressive agenda to advance the standard of equality is inspiring, and will hopefully play a part to systematic change in the educational system of the United States in the future.

Works Cited

“Alexandria Walton Radford.” RTI, RTI Press, 7 Feb. 2018.

Espenshade, T. J.; Radford, A. W. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. Princeton, N.Y.: Princeton University    Press, 2009.

Nadworny, Elissa, and Julie Depenbrock. “Today’s College Students Aren’t Who You Think They Are.” NPR, NPR, 4 Sept. 2018.

Khan, Shamus Rahman . “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life Thomas J. Espenshade Alexandria Walton Radford.” Contemporary Sociology, no. 5, 2011, p. 580. EBSCOhost.

Radford, A. W. Top student, top school? [electronic resource] : how social class shapes where valedictorians go to college Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

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