David Leonhardt, noting the rooted economic elitism governing admissions at America's top colleges and universities, spotlights several excellent policies implemented by outgoing Amherst president Anthony Marx to bring more students of modest means to campus. these include devoting a higher percentage of the budget to aid, devoting more aid to grants as opposed to loans, and, most interestingly, focusing transfer recruitment on community colleges -- which, with their terrible completion records, act as a kind of natural selector of able students.
Leonhardt frames the problem well, noting that a) only 15% of students at the nation's elite colleges come from the lower half of the nation's income distribution, while two thirds come from the top quartile, b) if you screen out race as an admission factor, colleges are no likelier to admit a lower income student with a given SAT score than a higher income student with the same score, and c) only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college.
Beyond the scope of his article, however, is the really shocking extent of educational inequality that winnows the field well before students reach college age.
According to Stephen J. Rose's Rebound: Why America Will Emerge Stronger from the Financial Crisis, about three quarters of students in the lower three income quartiles either never take a college entrance exam at all or have combined SAT scores under 1000. That stat matches up neatly with the composition of the student body at elite colleges cited above.
Kudos to colleges that follow Amherst's lead and do everything they can to welcome non-wealthy students who have shown the ability and grit needed to thrive in a challenging academic environment. But the more intractable problems are the grotesque inequality in primary and secondary schools and the enormous cost of higher education in America.