Jerome Karabel has an interesting op-ed in the NY Times today discussing the ongoing mania over highly selective college admissions. Here's a good summary of who goes to these schools:
Despite their image as meritocratic beacons of opportunity, the selective colleges serve less as vehicles of upward mobility than as transmitters of privilege from generation to generation.
Karabel goes on to point out that kids from the top socioeconomic quartile are 25 times more likely to attend a top tier college than those from the bottom quartile.
All of this raises the question of whether attending a highly selective college actually matters. Take a look at an old paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who found that when you make an apples-to-apples comparison (students attending highly selective colleges versus those admitted to highly selective colleges who went to less selective colleges instead) you're no better off attending an elite school, at least in terms of income. Great summary ("Children Smart Enough to Get into Elite Schools May Not Need to Bother") of his study here.
There was one notable exception. Low-income students who attended highly selective schools did benefit financially, which makes Karabel's call for more attention to these students' representation an important addition to the usual chorus of whining from elite parents.