What becomes of high school valedictorians, education,

Review of Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians: A Fourteen-Year Study of Achievement and Life Choices by Karen Arnold

Why I Chose This Book

The book Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker was published sometime early 2017 and there seemed to be some buzz surrounding its release. What initially caught my eye, before I knew it was related to Barker’s book, was an article or two stating that valedictorians don’t become really successful later in life. This sparked my curiosity. By that time, I had heard the same countless stories over the years about how some of the wealthiest and most influential people such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg eschewed the academic system by not finishing college. I had even learned about Terman’s termites, that group of kids with high I.Q.s tracked throughout their lives by the psychologist Lewis Terman, who mostly turned out to have unremarkable lives, but I don’t think I quite heard the same message explicitly stated about valedictorians.

The takeaway points from the various articles influenced by Barker’s book seemed to be that valedictorians or high academic achievers, actually, are successful. They end up having top-tier professions, such as lawyers, engineers, and doctors, but the distinction is that they don’t go on to have the “wild success most of us dream of.” High school valedictorians don’t become creative geniuses or wealthy billionaires. The article titles did seem a little misleading, but there was a message to be gleaned. Academic success has been stressed as very important to most of us throughout most, if not all, of our childhood and young adult lives. It has been promoted as the way to life success and the way to earning riches. Also, valedictorians are surely the brightest of us. Here, is a message saying that these ideas aren’t exactly true.

I wanted to find the original sources that Barker based his claims. I figured this work must have been done relatively recently because I had never really heard this exact message before. I was lead to the work of professor Karen Arnold. Not only had she studied the success of valedictorians after high school, but she had also written a book about her work, Lives of Promise, originally published in 1995.

Lives of Promise

This book is based on a longitudinal study performed by Karen Arnold and her collaborators called the Illinois Valedictorian Project. In her study, Arnold tracked the careers of 81 high school valedictorians, salutatorians and other high academically achieving students for 14 years from 1981 to 1995. When we think of high school valedictorians, we expect them to go on and be the leaders of the world and have highly successful careers. Karen Arnold’s project attempts to see if this is true.

“The record is clear; nothing succeeds like success and there is no predictor of academic success better than a history of academic success.”

Arnold reports not only where these students end up in their careers or what personal choices got them there, but what external factors affected their success and their opinions about their trajectories. Their attitudes towards their academic careers, their feelings about their lives outside of school, their family lives, their predictions for their futures, their reflections on the past are all recorded and reported.

The valedictorians were from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, though, the group tended to be white and middle class or above.  We see that most of these valedictorians didn’t really consider themselves to be much smarter than their classmates. They attribute their success instead to their hard work. Arnold notes that although their hard work is a significant contributor to their academic success, they are also likely more intelligent than their peers. Although they may be hard working, Arnold dispels the myth that valedictorians are narrowly focused on academics or are troubled individuals. During high school and beyond, “valedictorians have always led well-rounded, socially integrated, ‘normal’ lives.”

Early in the book, Arnold answers the question “are valedictorians successful a decade and a half after high school?” Yes, but one must ask what is success? After high school, the valedictorians’ views on success changed from stereotypical ideals such as attaining material wealth or having the lifestyles of their parents to more all-encompassing ideas. As they matured, the valedictorians began to view a balance between money, career and family as success. Even so, many still reached high ranks within their careers.

Though, generally successful, the valedictorians were not without their challenges. One such challenge was that “extremely talented students face an odd danger: they do so well in the paths they choose that they might not question whether the direction really fits them.” Many high achieving students become so focused on a trajectory that was set early on that they don’t explore other options and often, down the road, find themselves dissatisfied with their career choices, but reluctant to change because of the time spent.

Many valedictorians also struggled to find meaning in their achievements as they reached their late twenties and thirties. Having worked so hard, some questioned who they were working so hard for. Did they miss out on other experiences during high school or college that they won’t get back? Take the following quote from Sophie who was in her thirties at the time of the following statement for example

“When I look back at the time I studied in college, I could probably have done just as well in college with half the effort. If I would do college again, would I find it necessary to come out with a 4.0? I don’t think so. I would probably try to do different things and broaden my horizons a little, but I didn’t know that going in.”

or Dale, who was in his late twenties when he said the following

”I mean, I took classes seriously that were such a waste of my time. Like home ec- I probably got an A in that because everything I did was beautiful. But I could have been out carousing. A lot of the energy that I put into being a good student should have been put in other things, I think. All of that creativity should have been going into an art class, not in doing this very mundane class that was very meaningless for me, but I would still put so much effort into it…I’m paying for what I did for twenty-four or twenty-five years in not being who I was-being a good student, being a good everything, a good son. And I tell you, when you don’t have your youth in the teenage years, you want it; you want to capture it somehow. I mean I have no pride in saying that I didn’t do drugs and all that stuff. I hate it. I’m embarrassed by it. I mean, I don’t find any of it virtuous at all. I need to get the nerve to go out and experiment. I need to go out and get it out of my system, so I don’t feel like I’ve missed life.”

Women and minority students often faced challenges not encountered by their white male peers. Women valedictorians chose less prestigious universities, lowered their intellectual self-esteem during college, and found difficulty negotiating career success with aspirations to have families. These challenges were almost unique to women in the study. Minority students maintained their work ethic of hard work, persistence and belief in themselves while earning good grades, but often failed to tap into the success factors lying beyond the classroom. They often lacked meaningful connections with others in their fields such as professors and the tacit knowledge necessary to navigate within those spaces.


Arnold concludes that overall, valedictorians go on to have high salary paying jobs and lead balanced lives. The road to success wasn’t necessary predetermined for this group though. Although valedictorians, as a whole, tend to be successful, Arnold notes that academic achievement by itself is no guarantee to success later in life. Support systems and self-development are also important, even more so for women and minority students. Why were valedictorians so successful in the first place? They tended to be highly motivated to excel because of early family and school experiences. By the time valedictorians became adults, much of their focus had shifted away from their careers and changed to include family and life satisfaction.

Are high school valedictorians successful? Yes, they go on to become doctors, professors, lawyers, engineers, top executives etc. at a higher rate than their peers. Do they go on to become creative geniuses and world changers? Not necessarily. This particular study ended while the subjects were in their thirties and thus still had plenty of time to become eminent figures. So, we can’t know for sure, but it seemed unlikely that most of these people would be the subjects of biographies throughout the years. Why is that?  To achieve academic success, valedictorians learned to follow the rules, not change them. They are the ones more likely to run the world well, rather than change it.

Some or many of the findings may not be surprising to those already familiar with the topics of success, academic achievement, career success, and innovators, but one of the strengths of this book lies in the individual stories, the case studies and the interviews. They help put personalities to the statistics. The book feels lengthy and probably could be shortened some, but even so, there were still nuggets of information to be found throughout. This book provides a good insight into the lives of those students who achieved the golden trophy of our early lives. This book tells us what these high achievers think of their success, how do they feel, and where do they go. Though, we currently live in the age of social media and can see what our former classmates are doing, we don’t always know the internal and external struggles they’ve faced. This book provides some perspective for all people surrounding both present day and past high achieving students. Perhaps we can all learn something from their paths.

Notes: If reluctant to buy the book, the original research paper (75 pages) can be found here

Also, here, is a nice rebuttal to the claims that valedictorians don’t amount to much.

3 thoughts on “Review of Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians: A Fourteen-Year Study of Achievement and Life Choices by Karen Arnold

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