We like to view higher education as the "great equalizer" that leads to social mobility. But selective colleges have long been accused of perpetuating class divides, rather than blurring them.
A recent landmark study by Stanford's Caroline Hoxby and Harvard's Christopher Avery lent further empirical evidence to this accusation, finding that high-achieving low-income students do not have access to selective schools. The study showed that the mismatch is due to a lack of knowledge, not quality. Low-income students outside of major urban centers do not even apply to the top-tier colleges for which they are qualified.
Many commentators and the study authors themselves have looked for ways to alleviate this mismatch. A follow-up study found that supplying basic information to applicants could substantially increase the number of low-income students applying to more selective schools. Just giving low-income kids packets of information helped them apply to better schools.
Yet while the information gaps are real and need to be addressed, there is a much deeper structural problem. If most top colleges wanted to be truly equitable, they could not be with their current business model. There is not a golden pot of low-income applicants that schools want but are failing to reach. Instead, many schools don't want more low-income students because they won't be able to pay for them without a major overhaul of school funding practices. Outside of the handful of super-elite universities with fortress endowments, colleges' finances are currently designed around enrolling a disproportionately high number of high-income students. These schools could not afford to support more low-income or middle-income students absent either a huge increase in tuition, a commensurate reduction in spending, or a dramatic change in public funding.