At the very least, the persistence of this higher-education gap suggests that the causes of the decades-old growth in economic inequality are deeper than, say, tax cuts or the ebb and flow of the stock market. Inequality of income breeds inequality of education, and the reverse is also true: as long as the financial returns on a college degree continue to rise, the upper and upper-middle classes are likely to pull further away from the working and lower classes.
The United States still leads most countries by a considerable margin in proportion of the population with a college degree (27 percent). But when the sample is narrowed to those between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, we slip into the pack of industrialized nations, behind Canada, Japan, and five others. Further, the U.S. college-age population is swelling (it will increase by about 3.9 million during this decade, according to one estimate), with much of the growth occurring among low-income Hispanics, one of the groups least likely to attend college. Educating this population is an enormous challenge—one that we are unprepared to meet.
The obvious culprits are the universities, which have trumpeted their commitment to diversity and equal access while pursuing policies that favor better-off students. Not only is admitting too many low-income students expensive, but it can be bad for a school's rankings and prestige—and in the long run prestige builds endowments.
The current arms race for higher rankings began in earnest in the early 1980s, when the post—Baby Boom dearth of applicants sent colleges, both public and private, scrambling to keep tuition revenue coming in. It has been sustained by anxious Boomer parents, by the increasing financial advantages of a college degree, by cutbacks in government aid, and by magazines eager to make money from ranking America's top schools. The rankings rely on statistics such as average SAT scores, alumni giving, financial resources, and graduation rates. Attracting students with high scores and high family incomes offers the biggest gains of all. (See Matthew Quirk's "The Best Class Money Can Buy," page 128.)
Meanwhile, the admissions process is strewn with practical obstacles for low-income students. Early-admissions programs, for instance, which James Fallows has discussed in these pages (see "The Early-Decision Racket," September 2001 Atlantic), offer many benefits to applicants, but they almost exclusively help wealthy students, whose parents and guidance counselors are more likely to have the resources to take advantage of them. Poorer students are also less likely to know about the availability of financial aid, and thus more likely to let "sticker shock" keep them from applying in the first place. And a poor student put on a waiting list at a selective school is less likely than a well-to-do student to be accepted, because often a school has exhausted its financial-aid budget before it turns to the list.
In this scramble selectivity is "the coin of the realm," as one admissions officer put it to The Atlantic last year. More and more schools define themselves as "selective" in an effort to boost their position and prestige, and fewer and fewer offer the kind of admissions process that provides real opportunities for poorer students. As a result, those disadvantaged students who do attend college are less and less likely to find themselves at four-year schools. Among students who receive Pell Grants—the chief need-based form of federal assistance—the share attending four-year colleges fell from 62 percent in 1974 to 45 percent in 2002; the share attending two-year schools rose from 38 percent to 55 percent.