The admissions practices of the most highly selective colleges and universities of the United States are under scrutiny for their failure to enroll poor and working-class students (Douthat, 2005; Karabel, 2005; Klein, 2005). This negative attention has been spearheaded by findings reported in two important books examining the shortage of low-income students at the pinnacle of American higher education, Equity and Excellence in Higher Education by William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil, and Eugene Tobin (2005) and America's Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, edited by Richard Kahlenberg (2004), as well as by research articles (e.g. Winston & Hill, 2005). In a chapter in the Kahlenberg text, for example, Carnevale andRose reported that only 3% of freshmen entering 146 highly selective institutions in 1992 came from the lowest quartile of a socioeconomic status (SES) index and about 10% came from the entire bottom half of the SES distribution (2004, p. 106). Demonstrating a highly skewed distribution of access, nearly three fourths (74%) of students enrolled at these institutions come from the highest SES quartile.
Contributing further attention to the lack of socioeconomic diversity at elites, Thomas Mortenson of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education began ranking prestigious schools according to their success or failure in enrolling financially needy students, as indicated by the proportion of the student body receiving federal Pell grants (Fischer, 2006a). The findings of these studies have been widely reported (see, for example, Fischer, 2006a; Gose, 2005; Hong, 2005; Selingo & Brainard, 2006), inspiring headlines such as "The chorus grows louder for class-based affirmative action" (Gose, 2005). The controversy raises substantial questions about the way in which valuable educational resources are distributed and the definitions of merit that prevail when elite institutions choose among numerous qualified candidates.
Family affluence clearly affects what type of college a student attends or whether they go to college at all. This is shown, for example, by differences in college participation by high-and low-income students with "medium-high preparedness"--in other words, those who are not at the top of their class but are well qualified for college. Only 3% of wellqualified students from high-income families did not attend college, in comparison to 13% of those from low-income families. Well-qualified students from high-income families were also much more likely to attend a high-priced college than were their low-income peers (52% vs. 20%) (Hoxby, 2000, cited in Bowen et al., 2005, p. 87).
Socioeconomic inequalities in college enrollments raise troubling issues for education in a democratic society. Providing students with the opportunity to enroll at a college appropriate for their level of academic ability, regardless of family circumstances, is a cornerstone of higher education policy (Bowen et al., 2005; Kahlenberg, 2004; St. John, 2003). Maintaining this commitment has become more challenging as per capita government funding for college operating subsidies and low-income student aid has declined (Archibald & Feldman, 2006; Trends in Student Aid, 2006; Weerts & Ronca, 2006). As the returns to a college degree have increased, so has demand (Education Pays, 2006), particularly for spots at highly selective colleges, whose graduates enjoy an even higher earnings premium than others (Eide, Brewer, & Ehrenberg, 1998). Students at elite colleges enjoy additional benefits as well, including a greater likelihood of degree completion and greater access tograduate and professional study (Carnevale & Rose, 2004). These benefits have spawned intense competition for enrollment at highly selective colleges, and the recent increases in socioeconomic inequities in access (Astin & Oseguera, 2004) suggest that upper-income students have successfully utilized their numerous advantages to win this competition. …