The Atlantic's first annual issue on college admissions draws a useful distinction between America's open, sprawling system of higher education, where virtually everyone has room to learn, and the much narrower field available for status-seekers and the would-be elite:
There are thousands of institutions of post-high school instruction in the United States: more than 2,300 four-year colleges, more than 1,800 two-year colleges, and an unknown but large number of trade schools, technical institutes, art or music centers, and other specialized schools. There are night schools for people with jobs; online or written correspondence courses for people in remote locations; universities in big cities and on secluded campuses in Oregon and Maine. There are technical institutes?for music, nursing, forestry, aviation?and colleges that emphasize the classics. The American higher-education establishment includes the Air Force Academy and Juilliard, Bob Jones University and Caltech….
Then we have the reality that none of these counselors and officers like but all of them recognize: admissions is a battlefield in a brutal competition for prestige. Everyone in America's college-aspirant class understands how this works. "Going Ivy" is a win. Being stuck at a safety school is a loss. The real admissions system is creative in finding room for everyone. The trophy admissions system is a you-versus-me competition for a limited number of spaces at a handful of schools. The real system emphasizes how many places a student might be happy. The trophy system emphasizes how few. The real system puts its greatest stress on what a student will do after he or she starts college. The trophy system cares only where he or she gets in.