Economic realities are threatening the American ideal that even poor students who are bright enough and work hard can get into any college they desire.
More expensive private universities are admitting that they have started to review their applicants' ability to pay when weighing admissions decisions. That decision process now is under way for students hoping to enrol this autumn.
Since the 1960s, United States colleges and universities have claimed to be "need-blind" - that is, blind to their applicants' need for financial assistance when deciding whether to admit them.
But as annual tuition, room and board at private universities and colleges has risen to its current average of $17,631 (Pounds 11,800) per student without a proportional increase in government grants, some say they no longer can afford to take as many needy students.
"We have to manage the resources," said Paul Thiboutot, dean of admissions at Carleton College in Minnesota. "So while we are trying to admit students first and foremost on the basis of their merit and ability, if we've run out of financial aid, we will have to look at some on the basis of what their need is."
The professional association representing university admissions counsellors bars them from using financial need as a consideration in selecting students.
But a survey taken by the group last year found that 20 top schools already were reviewing applicants' financial status while nearly a third anticipated that they soon would have to do so.
This new reality is not a secret for high school seniors. Twenty-nine per cent of 3,500 seniors in a survey said they hoped to go to a four-year college or university, but only 17 per cent thought they would. The major reason: cost, which has eclipsed location, academic reputation and social life as the number one factor in choosing a college.
Admitting students without regard to economic means "has long been a standard of good policy in higher education in the United States", the National Association for College Admission Counselling said in a report. But higher costs and fewer grants "have created a marketplace climate in which this policy is being questioned".
In a compromise reached in September, the association agreed not to enforce the principle of "need-blind" admission. However, it urged colleges and universities to tell students and their families if their financial need would be a factor in the selection process.
Some in higher education say many universities that claim to be need-blind are admitting students with one hand and denying them the aid they need to pay tuition with the other.
"You jump for joy and then you burst into tears," said Mike Nichol, spokesman for Brown University, an elite Ivy League school that admits to scrutinising applicants' financial means. "Why do that to people?"