As the shaded quadrangles of the nation’s elite campuses stir to life for the start of the academic year, they remain bastions of privilege. Amid promises to admit more poor students, top colleges educate roughly the same percentage of them as they did a generation ago. This is despite the fact that there are many high school seniors from low-income homes with top grades and scores: twice the percentage in the general population as at elite colleges.
A series of federal surveys of selective colleges found virtually no change from the 1990s to 2012 in enrollment of students who are less well off — less than 15 percent by some measures — even though there was a huge increase over that time in the number of such students going to college. Similar studies looking at a narrower range of top wealthy universities back those findings. With race-based affirmative action losing both judicial and public support, many have urged selective colleges to shift more focus to economic diversity.
This is partly because students are more likely to graduate and become leaders in their fields if they attend competitive colleges. Getting low-income students onto elite campuses is seen as a vital engine of social mobility.
Yet as Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, put it, “Higher education has become a powerful force for reinforcing advantage and passing it on through generations.”