We know that there are huge inequalities in prospects along many dimensions (health, wealth and well-being) between those who have a college degree and those who do not have a college degree. Moreover, there are noticeable inequalities between those who have college degrees from elite institutions and those who have college degrees from other institutions. Access to college and elite college degree programs is thus highly consequential and access should be determined fairly.
Debates about Equality of Opportunity in higher education focus not only on the under-representation of certain groups, such as racial minorities and the poor, but also on inequalities in drop-out rates and inequalities between those applying to elite institutions in the first place. These inequalities may be symptoms of deeper social problems, such as wealth inequality and racism, that are not caused by the system of higher education. Nevertheless, higher education may have an essential role in the best solution to these social problems, controlling, as it does, access to elite positions of power and effecting the representation of minorities in those positions that may influence aspiration levels amongst members of disadvantaged groups.
One of the more controversial reforms associated with higher education and Equality of Opportunity is affirmative action, which reserves preferential treatment, and even quotas, for historically disadvantaged groups. This can lead to the complaint that merit, and not race or class, is the only relevant criterion for selecting college applicants and can lead to the stigmatization of members of those groups who do attend college as not deserving of their place. However, this is to forget that opportunities to develop merit are themselves unfairly distributed between groups historically. Notwithstanding this response, affirmative action remains a controversial response to a very difficult social problem.