Readers interested in higher education might take a look at the recent article by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books, Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality. One of its major points is that higher education may not be the locus of social opportunity it is supposed to be – in fact, it may be entrenching or even widening social inequality. This retrenchment of the haves and have-nots, like implicit racism, operates on a range of levels, many of which are subtle and complex.
At the top of the prestige pyramid, in highly selective colleges like those of the Ivy League, students from the bottom income quartile in our society make up around 5 percent of the enrollments. This meager figure is often explained as the consequence of a regrettable reality: qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds simply do not exist in significant numbers. But it’s not so. A recent study by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard shows that the great majority of high-achieving low-income students (those scoring at or above the ninetieth percentile on standardized tests, and with high school grades of A- or higher) never apply to any selective college, much less to several, as their better-off peers typically do.3 Their numbers, which Hoxby and Avery estimate at between 25,000 and 35,000 of each year’s high school seniors, “are much greater than college admissions staff generally believe,” in part because most such students get little if any counseling in high school about the intricate process of applying to a selective college—so they rarely do.