Despite the fact that attending college is the surest way to break into the middle class, it looks like colleges themselves seem mostly to reinforce existing class distinctions.

This is according to a piece by Alex Friedrich at Minnesota Public Radio. Friedrich writes that the “’best’ higher-ed institutions have had to abandon their original mission of serving the public and instead become ‘engines of inequality.’”

The trouble, as Friedrich discovered in an article by Lumina Foundation senior adviser Gordon Davies, is that:

For all the talk about vast increases in the numbers of students enrolled (many of them will be older persons returning to complete degrees they began years ago) and successfully completing their degrees or certificates, the leaders of colleges and universities are usually rewarded for their success in making their institutions elite: top 30 research universities, highly selective admissions, and so on.

The formerly blue-collar commuter institution now is a flashy residential university seeking a high place in a magazine’s ratings. The land grant university, established to provide education to the rural population of the state, all but abandons this mission in a headlong quest to become one of the nation’s top 30 research universities. The urban university in a city with high poverty and high unemployment announces that it, too, will become a great research institution.

Becoming a top research university might be good for administrators’ careers, the state’s prestige, and even the university’s financial stability, but it isn’t good for providing working-class state residents with affordable higher education, which is the point of state universities.

It works like this: states provide less money to fund state universities; state universities respond by striving toward elite status to attract research dollars and bigger donations, the price of college goes up. And then richer students attend the university. And poor students don’t go to college, go to less selective schools, and take out big loans to go to college.

This tactic may save public colleges, but it sure doesn’t help the American public.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer