The wound-up, overachieving children of the wound-up, overachieving professional elites find themselves ensnared in a paradox: the more intense the competition for social rewards, the more advantages their parents feel compelled to confer on them, and at earlier and earlier ages. Even as these children compete harder to achieve more, they may suspect they are less and less deserving. This is a recipe for neurosis, in which a style of condescension appropriate to the old Protestant upper crust mingles nonsensically with the gaping insecurity of the striving middle classes. And this is precisely the voice in which Privilege has been written.
Douthat is confused; but only because everyone is confused. As the smartest people writing about higher education—I'm thinking now of the critics Louis Menand and Andrew Delbanco—agree, the period between roughly 1945 and 1975 constituted a Golden Age for the American university system. In the decades after the GI Bill, college enrollment exploded, from a quarter-million to 10 million students, and standardized tests became a near-universal requirement for college admissions. (College admissions in turn became increasingly "need blind.") Starting in the 1970s, growth slowed and the student population diversified. As Menand has pointed out, on the typical college campus a non-Hispanic white male is now a minority. Each period—the period of growth, and the period of diversification—contributed to the vocabulary of "fairness": The Golden Age opened up universities to white males of intellectual talent, regardless of background. The period of diversification aggressively extended that openness to women and minorities.
Not coincidentally, the period covering the Golden Age of universities is also referred to as the Golden Age of capitalism. In the decades immediately following the war, the white-collar universe expanded—the professional sector of the American economy grew by a factor of 12 over those 30 years—while the blue-collar universe contracted. Universities acted as the principle training and staffing mechanism for that new white-collar universe. They went from being hoarders of opportunity to distributors of opportunity, a pit stop for a new army of Ragged Dicks.
The ideology behind the Golden Age was what sociologists call an ideology of relative social mobility, in which everyone, regardless of social origin, is given an equal opportunity to advance up the ladder of success. But the reality behind the Golden Age was what sociologists call absolute social mobility: Everyone did better, and because there were so many new white-collar jobs to go around, no one did worse. When the Golden Age came to an end, ideology failed to catch up to reality. We still pay lip service to equal opportunity, even though, absent an ever-expanding white-collar universe, some children of the middle class will need to fail in order to make room at the top of the occupational ladder for the talented children of the working class. And well-to-do middle-class parents do not like it when their children fail.
To prevent failure, middle-class parents pass along to their children every possible advantage, in the form of "social capital," or those habits of speech and self-discipline that allow a child to thrive in the classroom. Middle-class parents who can afford the property taxes move to the best school districts, or send their children to private schools. Economists have a vocabulary for this: They write about "Cobb-Douglas utility functions," whereby parents forgo current consumption in order to secure for their children high levels of future income. Legal theorists have a vocabulary for this: They talk about inter vivos bequests, whereby parents pass along a good education as a kind of inheritance. (Even literary critics have a vocabulary for this: They talk about Bourdieu-ian "reproduction.") So there's a technical language for inherited middle-class advantages; but as of now no ideological, no emotional, and no public-policy language for the phenomenon. Held to the impossible standard of the Golden Age, universities are now easily portrayed—even public universities, and even the old land-grant colleges—as finishing schools for a stable professional elite. The less they are viewed as purveyors of a public good, the easier they are to underfund. The more underfunded they become, the more expensive they are, the fewer scholarships they provide; the fewer scholarships they provide, the more exclusive they become … and on and on and on.