It has long been the Cold Spring Shops position that institutions of higher learning, no matter their station, view themselves as being in the same business as the Ivies.  Their failure to do so may be contributing to widening social stratification.
At its heart, the widening gap in college completion rates between rich and poor students undermines the traditional American notion of equal opportunity. It also represents a missed economic opportunity. Raising graduation rates among low- income students would significantly increase average educational attainment in the U.S. and, in so doing, bolster productivity.
In many cases, the propensity of students who might be eligible to attend more visible institutions, yet choose not to, may be self-handicapping. (There's a more cynical view of the phenomenon here, if you can stomach it.)

Self-handicapping or not, however, it might be a separating equilibrium desired by the current elite, according to Ross Douthat, proposing here that self-selection of eligible strivers out of the Ivies helps the current elite perpetuate itself, provided nobody is too open about it.
No, it’s better for everyone when these questions aren’t asked too loudly. The days of noblesse oblige are long behind us, so our elite’s entire claim to legitimacy rests on theories of equal opportunity and upward mobility, and the promise that “merit” correlates with talents and deserts.

That the actual practice of meritocracy mostly involves a strenuous quest to avoid any kind of downward mobility, for oneself or for one’s kids, is something every upper-class American understands deep in his or her highly educated bones.
It's a separating equilibrium in which some of the land grants and mid-majors are complicit, in a way particularly demoralizing.
If you are a low-income prospective college student hoping a degree will help you move up in the world, you probably should not attend a moderately selective four-year research institution. The cards are stacked against you.

That’s the sobering bottom line of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press), a new book based on five years of interview research by Elizabeth A. Armstrong, an associate professor of sociology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan, and Laura T. Hamilton, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced.

It’s not entirely the colleges’ fault, Hamilton says. Declining state and federal support and rising tuition have made it critical to recruit students who can pay more (and who continue to donate after they leave). But the out-of-state and affluent students attending these colleges are not in it for the academics – those students are going to the Harvards, Michigans and Berkeleys of the world.

The students who end up at Midwestern University – a pseudonym for the flagship institution where Armstrong and Hamilton follow a group of women through their college careers, from the dorm floor to a year post-graduation – are socially minded. Thus, to lure and keep those students, institutions have come to structure their academic and social frameworks in a way that accommodates that population.

The result of this “party pathway” is more than just a substandard education for those students, whose significant family resources and connections -- which set them up for jobs after graduation, regardless of credentials -- allow them to take easy majors and spend as much time if not more drinking as they do studying. It also deters those on the “mobility pathway,” as those low-income students seeking entry into the middle class are both poorly supported and distracted by the party framework. As a result, many of these students struggle to succeed -- meandering through college for six years or more -- or drop out altogether.
Time's Fareed Zakaria communicates the same message to a wider public.
State universities--once the highways of advancement for the middle class--have been utterly transformed under the pressure of rising costs and falling government support. A new book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, shows how some state schools have established a "party pathway," admitting more and more rich out-of-state kids who can afford hefty tuition bills but are middling students. These cash cows are given special attention through easy majors, lax grading, social opportunities and luxurious dorms. That's bad for the bright low-income students, who are on what the book's authors, Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, call the mobility pathway. They are neglected and burdened by college debt and fail in significant numbers.
The strategy might work as a revenue-enhancer short run. Taking the longer view, though, it's not likely to pay off in political support, as the thin envelopes arrive at the homes of strivers who can vote for legislators, and as the value of the institution's degree degrades, as the party-pathway students hit the work force.

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