Paradoxically, as Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl have observed, increasing college access is increasing inequality within the higher education universe. In 2011, more than half (53.9 percent) of Americans aged 25 years or older had at either a four-year degree or more (32.1 percent) or one to three years of college (21.8 percent), almost four times the share in the early 1950s—making issues of who goes where far more important.
Figure 1 vividly illustrates the socioeconomic breakdown of students in community colleges compared with four-year institutions of varying levels of selectivity. In 2006, high-SES students outnumbered low-SES students by 14 to 1 in the most competitive four-year institutions, yet low-SES students outnumbered high-SES students in community colleges by nearly 2 to 1.
Jordan Weissmann writes at The Atlantic:
If you think higher education should be a ladder for upward mobility, then you should regard these numbers as a disgrace. As we've written before at The Atlantic, elite colleges do a consistently poor job recruiting the intelligent but low-income high school students who could benefit most from a top-notch education. Part of their problem, as Josh Freedman explained for us recently, is that it's expensive. Low-income undergrads need financial aid, and many institutions either don't have the resources, or would simply prefer to deploy them elsewhere. Others have the money and are willing to use it, but aren't sufficiently aggressive about reaching out to a population of students who often don't realize they have the academic skills to attend a great school or that aid would cover most of their expenses.