The University world is often viewed as a meritocracy on all levels, whether faculty advancement or student marks. And while some realize that (in the past) it has been really the wealthiest who tend to go to the most prestigious institutions (just due to the price tag), the trend will become more pronounced with next year's incoming class at universities around the country. Indeed, the cost of university education has been increasing at an alarming rate for a long time now, but the economic crisis will now exacerbate the divide between the haves and have nots in terms of university admissions policies. As the NYTimes reports, universities with shrinking endowments are taking the ability of a student to pay fully in cash into admissions considerations, turning the meritocracy increasingly into a plutocracy. Socio-economic diversity will be reduced, and, since unfortunately so often socio-economic diversity is linked with ethnicity, ethnic diversity is likely to decrease in private universities. The universities claim that by doing this, by focusing on wealthier students, they will be able to afford to offer scholarships to the less economically fortunate...but student aid, as a whole, will be down next year.
Some universities are traditionally "need blind," meaning that they admit students without regard for wealth. At the moment, only the wealthiest universities can afford to do so. At the same time, "need blind" universities DO look at wealth for international students, wait-listed students, and transfer students (this is the case at Brandeis), and, interestingly enough, international admittance is up at need-blind universities. Many private institutions, however, are openly aware of wealth and have been and will take even added consideration of wealth and background (including using your ZIP code as a possible indicator of economic background!).
In sum, if you are a weaker student, but from a wealthy background, you have a better chance of getting into a good school than usual, because those who are bright but cannot pay the rising costs of education without a scholarship or aid are out of the running this year. And god forbid you live in the wrong neighborhood (ZIP code)!