Since the 1980s, the golden age of American higher education has been steadily fading.

In the postwar years, the GI Bill and the community-college system created opportunities for those lacking in background or resources (in many cases, both) to work their way up the educational and professional ladder. During the same period, grass-roots social movements—above all the civil-rights movement and feminism—compelled elite four-year colleges, which spend up to 10 times as much per student as public universities do, to open their doors to students whose class background or race had previously been grounds for exclusion.

Since the 1980s, however, that situation has begun to reverse itself. Under the constraints of the antitax revolt, dwindling public revenues, and, more recently, the 2008 financial crisis, we have witnessed a major withdrawal of funds from public education, whose burdensome costs must increasingly be borne by private citizens. When coupled with the burgeoning sticker price of college tuition—since 1986 tuition costs have risen by 500 percent, over four times the rate of inflation—the result is that a baccalaureate degree has increasingly become the prerogative of the most affluent Americans. Statistics show that whereas children of a family earning $90,000 or more per year stand a 50-percent chance of earning a B.A. by the age of 24, when household income drops to the $60,000-$90,000 range, the odds fall by half, to one in four. Should family income fall below $35,000, those odds plummet to one in 17.

To offset rising tuition costs, lower- and middle-income students now graduate with mammoth student-loan debts. Today the average student graduates with a daunting $23,000 in unforgivable loan debt.

The socioeconomic consequences of these trends are unambiguous and disturbing. The wave of merit-based, upward social mobility that crested during the 1960s and 70s has all but come to an end. During that period, colleges functioned as crucial mechanisms of democratization and social inclusion. Today they are repositioning themselves as bastions of class privilege and social exclusion. As tax revenues dwindle and endowments shrink, the social-egalitarian ideal of need-blind admissions has also faded. Thus college-admissions committees seek out students who can pay full tuition, allowing their qualified, penurious counterparts to fend for themselves. Public universities, for their part, are shirking their responsibilities as state-financed, land-grant institutions by increasingly opening their doors to prosperous out-of-state students, who can afford to pay much higher tuition rates.

A series of recent reports from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development places the United States last in terms of gains in college-participation rates, which measure higher education's role in facilitating upward social mobility. In these surveys, Western European nations fare much better, since, unlike in the United States, European higher education is uniformly and generously publicly subsidized.

American society is becoming increasingly polarized: a nation of haves and have-nots. What is new is that, because of an increase in occupational stratification and social cleavage, today's have-nots possess little in common. The decline of the manufacturing sector and the concomitant rise of post-Fordism and the service industry mean that class solidarity has precipitously decayed, allowing plutocratic elites, in conjunction with the financial sector, to attain a heretofore unprecedented level of political-economic dominance.

In sum: The 1 percent formulates the economic règles de jeu that everyone else must live by. Increasingly, those elites are politically accountable to no one but themselves. We may still live in a democracy, but increasingly, it is a democracy in name only.

Richard Wolin is a professor of history and political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.