THEY are the shining stars of their high schools -- seniors whose top academic standing has earned them the title of valedictorian. As they lead classmates in graduation exercises this month and next, they appear to hold the promise of lifelong success.
But what happens after their valedictory addresses are forgotten and their classes disperse? Will they continue to excel in college and careers?
The answer is a qualified yes, according to the findings of Karen Arnold, a researcher who has conducted the first-ever study of high school valedictorians. In 14 years of following 81 valedictorians -- 46 women and 35 men -- from the Class of 1981 in Illinois high schools, Dr. Arnold found that they continued to be at the top of their college classes. Yet few appear headed for the same heights in their chosen careers.
''They're not mold-breakers,'' says Arnold, an assistant professor of higher education at Boston College and a visiting scholar at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass. ''They're just the best of the mainstream people. They're quite successful, personally and professionally, but they've never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion.''
What most surprised Arnold and her co-researcher, Terry Denny, now professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, were glaring gender differences. By their sophomore year in college, women valedictorians began to lower their intellectual estimation of themselves and their career aspirations. A number left male-dominated majors -- science and medicine -- for more traditionally female fields such as physical therapy and education. ''They were getting very good grades,'' Arnold explains, ''but already they were concerned about combining a high-level career and motherhood, even though most didn't even have a boyfriend then.''
That conflict between career and family forces college women to face what she calls ''a whole extra stage of career development in which they ask themselves, 'What kind of career do I want, and how will it fit into my life?' Men skip that stage and just aim for the highest level they can.''
A second surprise for Arnold and Dr. Denny involved the lack of mentoring the valedictorians received from faculty members. ''These days, people feel like the gifted can take care of themselves,'' Arnold says. ''What the valedictorians could do for themselves was get A's. That didn't mean they could translate academic achievement into career achievement. With role models and clear expectations about a career, men somehow figured it out. But with no role models and all this muddle about career and family, many women didn't.''
Similarly, almost all minority students faced obstacles. ''It was disheartening how marginalized they were in their universities,'' says Arnold. ''They were excluded from the circles in which you discover how to plan and implement a high-level career.''
Arnold sees faculty members serving a ''connecting function'' for these students. One valedictorian, an agronomy major, had earned almost straight A's in college and planned to work for a seed company after graduation. ''Her professor said, 'What graduate school are you going to?' She hadn't even thought of it. He encouraged her to go, and she ended up writing a wonderful thesis and publishing it.''
Today these valedictorians, now 32 years old, are building careers as accountants, physicians, professors, lawyers, engineers, physical therapists, nurses, and teachers. One is an architect; another a farmer. Four never finished college. Five women, two with master's degrees and two with PhDs, are out of the labor force, rearing children. But as Arnold observes, ''These women have lots of years to work. They still may have very distinguished careers.''
In their personal lives, valedictorians appear very well-adjusted. Two-thirds are married. Only three are divorced, all of whom married before the age of 21.
The valedictorians came overwhelmingly from what Arnold describes as ''very healthy, functional, two-parent families.'' Most parents had high expectations but didn't push their children.
Arnold's findings, to be published this summer in ''Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians'' (Jossey-Bass), offer encouraging implications for other students.
''Some valedictorians are brilliant, but by no means all,'' she says. The most important factors for academic success are perseverance and focus rather than IQ.
''Americans tend to attribute achievement to innate ability, while Asians attribute it to hard work,'' Arnold says. ''This study would say that sustained hard work is the way to achieve. You need to be bright as well, but hard work and persistence do pay off, especially in the long run.''